Friday, May 16, 2014

Why It Was Wrong to Postpone Discussion of Redistricting

The video contains the discussion and vote on the decision to postpone the redistricting discussion that was to take place at the May 13, 2014 ICCSD Board Meeting. Directors Swesey, McGinness, Kirschling, and Board President Hoelscher voted for the motion. The remaining board members, Directors Lynch, Fields, and Dorau, voted against the motion.

After watching it unfold, I made a number of snap judgments about why the vote was made and how it was planned, and I was also concerned about the decision to conduct the work session and the public board discussion over the summer. Making big decisions over the summer is a bad policy. But since I have no hard evidence to support my snap judgments, I'm doing my best to leave them in the past.

Nevertheless, I still strongly believe that the decision was wrong -- both on the merits of the argument made, and because it was just flat wrong.

The merits of the argument:

The argument for no discussion is nonsense. Here's my best reconstruction of the argument:

(P1) We got the maps last night (Monday). 
(P2) We need more time to prepare. 
Therefore, we should postpone discussion. 

First, the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises. Simply because one person or one group of people are not prepared does not mean that a fruitful discussion cannot happen. Furthermore, the discussion could very well have informed our board members who were not ready for the discussion. There is no requirement that unprepared board members speak in a discussion, and it was clear that a goodly number of audience members felt prepared to discuss the issue.

Second, both premises for the argument are, at best, misleading. The changes between the third iteration of the map and the final one presented to the board were minimal, and the third map was released on May 2, 2014 a good ten days before the board meeting and there was extensive feedback and discussion on the Engage Iowa City website, which was promoted by the administration.

In short, the case for postponement given the stated reasons was extremely weak. They are so weak that it makes me curious about why the decision was, in fact, made -- that is, what goal did the four board members actually have in voting for the motion. I don't know, and I'm hesitant to speculate.

Why the decision was just flat wrong: 

The decision to postpone was disrespectful to other board members and members of our community who came out to speak. I'm not saying that the words used by Swesey, McGinness, Hoelscher, or Kirschling were rude or injurious. In point of fact, I believe focusing too much on the words used, the tone, and so forth miss what it means to truly respect someone. That is to say, respect requires treating people as agents capable of making their own decisions (as autonomous agents), and so long as the exercise of that freedom does not interfere with the autonomy of another or subvert the common good, then we should do what is in our power to cultivate such respect. We shouldn't treat people as a mere means to accomplish our goals.

Given that the item was on the agenda, Lynch, Fields, and Dorau as well as concerned citizens who wished to speak had a fair and legitimate expectation that they would be able to speak on the matter at hand. The President even states that community comments on agenda items will take place when that agenda item comes up on the agenda. And we know that a large number of people wanted to speak*, but the postponement denied them the opportunity without good cause. In this context, it did not treat those who came to speak with the inherent dignity they possess. It treated them merely as a means to accomplish the goals of some board members.

Note also that I'm not saying that the move was procedurally invalid according to Robert's Rules of Order. Rather, I'm saying that they used those procedures to act wrongly toward their fellow board members and toward the community members who wished to speak on the subject. 

If the goal was not to have the item on the agenda, then a decision should have been made at the prior board meeting. 

If the goal was simply to have a work session and vote on it over the summer (a bad policy, in my opinion, but still reasonable), then the motion should have been proposed after the presentation and after interested parties were given their opportunity to speak.

Based on these considerations, the four board members who voted for the motion should issue a public apology to the community and to the other board members.

(*I have asked for the number of people who signed up to speak, but apparently the speaker cards were not returned to Board Secretary)