I’ve been looking backwards these days, thinking about the scores of governments I’ve covered in my nearly half a century in journalism, and matching them up against my current gig, the county Board of Supervisors.
Each city council, school board, sewer board is different. Each has its own priorities, and, because the cast of characters holding office changes, its own persona and its own ambience.
I’ve covered a lot of territory: New England Town Meetings, for example, the purest form of democracy, and my personal favorite.
I’ve also seen a lot of zany stuff.
Two city councilmen in a California border town once started throwing punches at each other, for example. In a tony Boston suburb, a dignified school board chairwoman gaveled a meeting to a close after two of her bare-knuckle colleagues began shouting at each other.
Good, bad, comical, and ugly. It comes in all varieties.
And then there is the current Board of Supervisors.
Over the nearly eight years I’ve followed them, there has been comity, disagreement, blandness, occasional hostility.
What I have not seen, until now, is the extraordinarily high level of toxicity. You can almost touch it.
It was suffocating this past Tuesday.
During public comment -- a major contributor to the poisonous atmosphere -- a parade of folks strode to the podium to criticize Supervisor Bruce Gibson for his love affair with his legislative assistant. This has been going on since November, when Gibson revealed the liaison, so his taking heat is nothing new. He brought it on with his behavior.
But then some guy named Thomas Salmon got up and likened Gibson’s aide – who is a co-worker of those seated at the podium – to a “whore” and a “prostitute.”
Really? I am not a big fan of what Gibson has wrought, but is it acceptable to call someone a whore at a public meeting?
I felt as though I had been plunged into the Trollosphere, that shadowy online world where sad, twisted losers project the frustrations of their failed lives onto normal people by insulting them viciously in comment sections on the Internet.
Has public comment at government meetings become the Trollosphere?
What happened next – and didn’t happen – was almost as bad.
Chairman Paul Teixeira tried to tell Salmon he was out of line. But a couple of regular Los Osos sewer project protesters, Julie Tacker and Richard Margetson, shouted that Teixeira was interfering with Salmon’s First Amendment rights.
Margetson later lectured the board on what he called its basic misunderstanding of freedom of speech. If someone didn’t like what was said about them, they could take it to the legal system, he said.
What was the reaction of other supervisors to the verbal criminalization of a woman with whom they share office space every day?
I was wistfully hoping for something like Joseph Welch asking red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, “At long last, sir, have you no decency?”
What I and others got instead was supervisor Debbie Arnold thanking Salmon for taking the time to share his views and assuring him that each of the five supervisor offices is autonomous, and the inhabitants therein conduct themselves differently.
In other words, Hey, don’t look at me! My legislative assistant is in the clear here.
And what about stand-up guy Frank Mecham, the tough ex-military man? Did he say, “Hey Tom, back off. Criticize all you want, but, Jeez, moderate your tone and watch your language. That’s my co-worker you’re talking about.”
No such luck.
As I say, I’ve been watching these guys since June of 2005, and this board is different. It is floating in poison.
Why? There’s a lot of blame to go around. Gibson’s behavior and Adam Hill’s sharp tongue are factors. But a significant cause of the venom is clearly the behavior of Arnold and the enraged people who back her.
The Arnold crowd has significant policy differences with Gibson, Hill and more regulation-oriented board members and staff. When they stick to those legitimate subjects, as they are perfectly capable of doing, they illuminate government and move the discussion forward.
But Arnold, from literally the day she took the oath in January, has gone out of her way to poke a finger in the eye of Gibson and Hill personally, sometimes in petty ways like voting to deny them the chairmanship of obscure county committees. Now we have her enabling a co-worker to be called a prostitute.
It’s a startling turn in the public perception of Arnold, about whom almost everyone says “Oh, she’s such a nice person.”
As for Mecham, well, he has shown he can lead. But these days he lets these outrageous comments go by without so much as a “tsk tsk.”
If you’re wondering whether I am advocating censorship, I am not. Of course Salmon and others have a right to be as offensive as they want. You can’t force people to show class.
But you sure as hell can - if you’re any kind of leader - exercise your own free speech and tell them when they’ve stepped over the line.
Let’s listen to former Supervisor Shirley Bianchi, who was a stickler for decorum. She pointed out that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but it also guarantees freedom of assembly.
What if, Bianchi asks, ordinary people become afraid to speak at public meetings because the third-grade bullies in the audience are exercising their freedom of speech so aggressively that they can’t practice their freedom of assembly.
She thinks that is happening. “It’s an intimidating environment,” she said.
Well, it’s a scene full of venom and vitriol, and I can only imagine what it’s like on the fourth floor, where supervisors and their aides have their offices. I’m told the tension is almost unbearable. I wonder if Mecham and Arnold look the other way when they pass Gibson’s aide in the hallway.
It’s going to go on like this until someone in a position of power asks for – not imposes – civility.
That will take leadership.