As a former city councilman and mayor, I know firsthand the unique challenges of small-time politics.
If you want to know how amusing, inspiring and depressing it can get, you'll find no better example than the mind-blowing show the Kirksville City Council put on last week. I was there, so I can give you the breakdown.
On the agenda was the formation of a modest nine-member Human Rights Commission to be called upon as needed to examine equal rights claims as they might come up, if ever.
It also rewrote the city's equal employment and housing statement to include, among other things, protections for sexual orientation. For example, as it stands now, it would not be against the law for a business to hang up a sign that says, "Gays need not apply," or for a landlord to evict a tenant after discovering she's a lesbian.
All this was modeled after a similar ordinance in nearby Columbia, MO, that's been on the books for a while and seemed to be working well enough for them.
As a result, City Hall was packed last Monday with more than 100 people - the largest crowd for a council meeting for a good many years. The majority of those present were there in support of the ordinance. But for Kirksville, MO, this is by far the most controversial ordinance this particular council has ever seen because of the inclusion of sexual orientation.
During citizen participation time, a number of folks, both gay and straight, spoke in favor. A few told us they're afraid they are to let their sexuality be discovered on the job, and felt that this ordinance would ease their mind that they could not be fired for that reason alone.
Others said that, as heterosexuals, they felt it was more than reasonable that homosexuals have the same right to housing and jobs as they do. It was also pointed out that other nearby cities have had great success and none of the feared problems after enacting their own versions.
In my opinion, the most powerful testimony came from citizen Sherri Palmer, who said that she would only encourage her children to return to Kirksville to live and work if she knew BOTH would be treated equally under the law.
Of course, we also heard arguments from a half-dozen or so against the ordinance - mostly the same members from the same two churches in town who are all too eager to fill council chambers whenever alcohol or sex is being discussed.
I always enjoy seeing former councilman Aaron "Let's Reinstate Prohibition" Rodgerson, who is nothing if not earnest. He opened his Bible to the trusty Old Testament to remind us we would be better off turning the clock back to 1776 or earlier, when our founding fathers owned slaves and kept women from voting or owning property. Of course God will rain his fiery judgement down on all of us if we let homosexuals sit at the same table because, you know, Sodom and Gommorah.
(Although another pastor from another church spoke in favor, saying that tale of two cities wasn't really about homosexuality at all. To be fair, scouring ancient religious texts for guidance on running a secular government does get a bit muddling.)
Former councilman Tony Faijkus - whom I otherwise respect a great deal - thoroughly embarrassed himself by rattling off a series of inaccurate statements about about how laws are made, including the notion that they must be set at the federal level first. I wish I had trotted that one out when he voted for restrictive ordinances on pit bulls a couple years ago.
He's also terribly concerned about lawsuits against the city if a gay person is among the candidates turned down for a job. So I'm looking forward to seeing him back next week, when he petitions to roll back protections on gender, religion and race under the same reasoning. But I won't hold my breath.
A former colleague of mine at Truman State University, Tim Mills, told us that anti-discrimination laws are completely unnecessary because, in his personal experience, he's never treated a gay person unfairly, nor heard a gay person complain about such. He must've had his iPod on high when the gay folks were sharing their own experiences 15 minutes earlier.
He's also concerned this will open the doors to all KINDS of marriages. You know - men betrothed to rose bushes and women wedding goats. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria. When you're going downhill as fast as possible, the best slope is a the slippery kind.
So these fine citizens railed fiercely against special interest groups, hilariously failing to see that, in a roomful of heterosexuals rallying for LGBT rights, they were the only "special interest group" in the room - concerned about nobody's interests but their own, with everyone but Rodgerson using disingenuous arguments to smokescreen their true motivations.
But no matter. Everyone expected the ordinance to pass 3-2 anyway, based on what the council had been saying this past month. If it wasn't going to pass, they wouldn't have even put it on the agenda. That's the way it works.
So when the vote came in 3-2 AGAINST, the crowd was stunned. And the explanations given would be hilarious if they weren't so depressing. Here's the breakdown:
Councilman Bob Russell - NO
In a bizarre turn of events, the most outspoken person FOR the ordinance - as recently as just five days before - voted it down in a surprise swing vote.
Keep in mind the only reason the council advanced this ordinance to a vote is because Russell had expressed these thoughts in a study session:
“I think it’s wrong to say, ‘You can’t come down and sit down in my restaurant because you’re gay. You can’t ride the bus because you’re black. You can’t have alcohol because you’re Indian. These are things we’ve developed as human beings on this Earth. We’ve made this what it is today. We need to correct it. That’s my thing here and I’ll stand by that.”
So naturally he had to explain his sudden flip-flop by means of an incredibly awkward and painful speech:
"Marriage is between a man and a woman,” he started out telling the crowd - apparently forgetting that the council was not considering a marriage ordinance of any kind - followed by his expressed desire to avoid invoking God's judgement down upon himself.
Praise Jesus! That's an 11th hour conversion if I ever saw one.
Councilman Glen Moritz - AYE
After Russell's stunning betrayal, Moritz launched into a tearful and impassioned speech about how morally and ethically bankrupt the council was by not passing this ordinance. He was so upset he left immediately after the meeting, skipping the study session that followed. I shook his hand on the way out and thanked him for his vote.
Councilman Roger Edge - NO
Roger Edge told the Kirksville Daily Express he was against the ordinance due to financial and cost concerns, citing a belief that a previous version of the ordinance required the city to provide office space for the commission.
Except that no version of the ordinance ever included such a thing.
In fact, at the opening of the meeting, City Manager Mary Macomber reminded the council and the crowd that all financial requirements had practically been eliminated because outreach and education components had been removed, and the commission would only meet on an as-needed basis.
Edge was so confused that he also told the paper he believed that the non-existent office space requirement had been removed prior to the vote, but still cited it as a reason for his opposition.
Keep in mind this is the most controversial and talked-about ordinance this council has ever considered.
Can someone please double-check this guy's medications?
Mayor Richard Detweiler - NO
Detweiler cited those same non-existent financial concerns on one hand, and this on the other:
“[Businesses] will be looking out their window, thinking, ‘They’ll be coming after us. They’re right. We’re going to investigate you, make you take time out of your business and, if necessary, we’ll sue you and you might pay a fine or go to jail. That’s the wrong message to send businesses.”
Translation: If we have laws, then businesses might be held accountable if they break them.
If you follow local politics at all, this is unfortunately the quality of reasoning you've come to expect from the man you call mayor.
Watch out, Kirksville: I can only assume our pesky health and safety ordinances - so inconvenient for businesses just trying to make a living - are next on Detweiler's chopping block.
Councilman Jerry Mills - AYE
I wanted to catch him after the meeting for his thoughts, but they went into study session and I couldn't stick around much longer. From what I can tell, Mills didn't feel the need to give any particular reason for doing the right thing.
So fellow citizens, meet the men you've elected to conduct the business of the city: A mayor who's afraid to make laws because people might be punished for breaking them; a guy who doesn't have any idea what's in the ordinances he's been discussing for months; a guy who doesn't know what he stands for at any given time; and two others in quiet befuddlement of the other three.
Either that, or they're cowering behind weak arguments because they're afraid to tell you what they really think. Is that really much better?
In the meantime, a good segment of our population has received the message that they are not full citizens. It's already led to the resignation of our by far most knowledgable and valuable volunteer on the Historic Preservation Commission.
That alone is a heartbreaking loss for our city. Cole did ALL the work to get our first historic district designation, including traveling to Jefferson City at his own expense to successfully present our petition before the State Historic Preservation Committee. He's the commission's most educated and knowledgable member on historic architecture and is responsible for placing a third of our other historic buildings on the national and state historic register.
But after this stunning display of jerkitude, I can't blame him for wanting to spend his valuable time elsewhere.
Never to worry, though. As a friend of mine pointed out, this is nothing that a low-turnout municipal election can't fix.