Council discussion sparks fireworks

  • By Alexis Bacharach Enterprise editor
  • Thursday, January 24, 2008 1:56pm

Mill Creek City Council members turned a discussion about their code of conduct into a virtual boxing match on Tuesday, Jan. 22, accusing each other of various actions that reflect poorly on the city.

It began with an article written two months ago by Mayor Terry Ryan for the Mill Creek View. In it, Ryan explained why he and Mayor Pro-tem Rosemary Bennetts voted against a residential annexation in November that brought the Webster’s Pond and Stonehedge neighborhoods into city limits.

“He suggested the numbers provided by our finance director were inaccurate and misleading,” said Councilwoman Mary Kay Voss, who initiated the discussion in order to clarify council members’ interpretation of the code. “I want to know how the other council members define the section in our code of conduct that states council members shall respect the majority of the council.”

Voss argued that Ryan broke the rules by not including in his article the many reasons five of seven council members voted in favor of the annexation and questioned whether adherence to the code of conduct was limited to council meetings or extended to daily interactions outside City Hall.

“I’ve had several op-eds published in local papers and I’m always very careful to draw a line between my opinion and the opinion of the council,” Voss said. “When someone as a council member writes an article giving a one-sided account of why they disagreed with a council vote … first of all it’s, bad journalism, and second, I don’t think it respects the decision reached by a majority of the council.”

Ryan began writing a monthly article for the Mill Creek View a little more than two years ago upon the death of the previous author, Councilman Jack Start.

“I do not profess to be a professional writer or a journalist,” Ryan said. “However, if we’re coming down to one article in more than two years, I’d say that’s a pretty good batting average.”

Tuesday’s debate was not an isolated event.

Disagreements between council members have escalated into similar arguments at a number of meetings in recent months.

A discussion in December to determine which council members were interested in serving as mayor in 2008 and 2009 became a referendum on Ryan’s attendance record.

“It was disgraceful,” Ryan said. “And I had several members of the audience approach me after that meeting who also felt that it was a disgraceful display. The purpose of that discussion has always been simply to identify those interested in the position, not to campaign for or against specific council members.”

Several council members were obviously uncomfortable with the tone of Tuesday’s discussion.

Bennetts asked whether the purpose of bringing up the code of conduct was to change the rules or point out various instances where council members had violated them, “Because I can point out many cases where council members have behaved disrespectfully towards other council members, where their body language and tone has been inappropriate for a council meeting.”

The question as to whether or not council members were expected to follow the code of conduct at all times was weighed against their individual rights to express opinions.

“If I don’t like an opinion written by another council member, rather than infringing on that person’s First Amendment rights, I suppose I’d get out a pad and pencil and write my own article disputing it,” Councilman Mark Bond said. “Perhaps I’d pick up the phone and discuss my concerns with that council member.”

Both he and Ryan called for a higher level of civility among council members.

“There is a pervasive pettiness on this council that I’d like us to rise above,” Ryan said. “If you have a problem with me or another council member, pick up the phone or discuss the issue after a meeting, We are too good of people to let this pettiness get in the way of our job.”

Voss denied the implication that her request for a clarification on the code of conduct arose out of pettiness, saying her only intent was to reach an understanding of how the rules apply to actions outside of city meetings.

“I simply wanted to know whether the code of conduct is something we are meant to follow 24-7,” she said. “We represent the city and we need to be mindful that the decisions we make are as a council. I don’t see anything inappropriate in asking these questions before I agree to sign our code of conduct.”

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