communication,  culture,  politics

Thoughts on a City Council Meeting

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I went yesterday to a city council meeting. I was there with just over 30 people to watch the passing of a motion to have our city council request that the provincial government reverse the cuts to the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit. So the part I was there for took all of three minutes and was passed with the full support of the council. Pretty dull, but good to have done. Of course it wasn’t the first thing on the agenda, so I had quite a bit of time to sit and watch as the council went through its other agenda items.

The first of the agenda items was a presentation by the provincial ombudsman regarding his role and addressing some concerned raised over things he had tweeted. There are a couple of things I was thinking about while watching this:

1) People take what other people tweet seriously, and people interpret things differently. See, our city council was in quite a bit of hot water a number of years back over the possibility of unethical or criminal behavior regarding the distribution of Elton John tickets. This is still a sore spot for the city council, so when the ombudsman had tweeted that he was on his way to the city, and that it had been a long time since he was last there to investigate the Elton John tickets, it was taken by the councilors as a slight, a reminder of that evil stain upon their record. From the Ombudsman’s point of view he was just pointing out that he hadn’t been there in a while. Neither side seemed to understand why the other would interpret the tweet differently.

2) Lots of problems can come from confusion. People should be willing to talk about where they went wrong and they should be willing to admit to making mistakes. Easier said than done, particularly since we all end up acting with only a miniscule amount of the information we really need.

3) Having cute little comics and clip-art on a power-point presentation don’t really help.

4) How important are personal feelings? At some point the Ombudsman said his role is not an adversarial one, just an investigative one. He makes recommendations, he doesn’t dole out punishments. One of the councilors said that when they had been investigated before it felt adversarial when they had been investigated years back over the Elton John tickets. The investigators hadn’t been friendly.

I wonder about that. I wonder about the role of friendliness. Should we try to make others comfortable always? Should we be strong enough to withstand discomfort? How much should adults expect to be coddled? I wonder about this because I’ve been in situations where people think it acceptable to yell and swear at other people, and in other situations where you have to tiptoe around carefully, and I’m not sure where the balance is. I mean, I’m pretty okay with the idea that we shouldn’t yell and swear, but after that there is a mushy area where its not quite as clear.

5) The Ombudsman said that the council had obtained bad legal advice. The city lawyer was pretty insulted and he spoke afterwards and said that he had been in law for 20 years, which means he had spent all that time disagreeing with at least one other lawyer about something, but that he had never said a person had obtained bad legal advice.

I found that interesting to think about how practicing law would include always being in disagreement with other lawyers. I admire the strength a lawyer would have to have to always be in conflict, and as much as I find myself always feeling like I am in conflict (normally tremendously minor disagreements) I really have a hard time with that. When I’m in conflict I keep wanting to check over and over again if perhaps I’m on the wrong side of the conflict. Am I really sure I’m right? Absolutely? Positively? I can’t imagine dealing with it all the time.

I also found it interesting the suggestion that one should not say another person has obtained bad legal advice. Legal advice isn’t just a matter of opinion, and it has consequences. If legal advice leads to bad consequences that could have been avoided by better legal advice, why shouldn’t it be deemed bad legal advice? Was the city soliciter basically arguing by saying “you’re mean” or was he saying “you’re unprofessional”? Is there a difference between mean and unprofessional, and if so, what is it?

In some ways this post really ties in with the points brought up in this older post about communication and how the same things mean different things to different people.

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  • Lionel

    Very good post & thought provoking. It will give me plenty to think about. I agree with discussing things and clearing up confusion. It is difficult to know what method to take as everyone is and reacts differently. I suppose that’s the key to communicating: to be able to communicate your message/idea/thoughts clearly in whatever manner accomplishes that. Great post. I might be back after I think about it some more.

    Paul R. Hewlett

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