Thursday, March 09, 2017

ON THE AVENUES: Never preach free speech to a yes man; it wastes your time and annoys Team Gahan.

ON THE AVENUES: Never preach free speech to a yes man; it wastes your time and annoys Team Gahan.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

By now, most of us should be aware that social media simultaneously clarifies and distorts reality.

Our species hasn’t evolved to the point of true “virtual” enlightenment, and as I wait patiently in the queue, it has been my practice to block, censor and unfriend only with the utmost reluctance.

I’m a proud leftist, but far more so than any single political perspective, freedom of speech is bedrock for me. I’m desirous that my social media feeds be a place where differing perspectives are represented, as objectionable in manner of presentation as they sometimes are.

Communication is the goal, and there needs to be more of it, not less.

At the city council meeting of Thursday, February 16, my non-agenda public speaking time was devoted to reading a prepared statement written by the Bookseller, and reprinted here.

12 years after we began advocating for creating a pedestrian-friendly and commerce-enhancing reversion to 2-way traffic patterns in Midtown and Downtown, it looks like we may get it.

It is unfortunate that we had to wait through 3 consecutive mayoral terms before we saw any move toward rational flow patterns and traffic-calming. The 3 Democrats who have held the mayor's office during that time EACH expressed full support for our ideas, but still it took 12 years. One might even wonder if those three men were sincere in telling us they supported it.

As we await this multi-million dollar repaving project, however, there still seems to be a disconnect with regard to pedestrian safety. Yes, 2-way patterns will bring immediate benefits to pedestrian safety, but more can be done.

We would like to ask the council to come walking with us along Spring Street someday soon. We can start at the county line and work our way to the City-County building. During that walk, we will see the vast stretches of that street where no pedestrian can cross safely.

Let's call it a "feasibility study," if you will, with a goal to selecting the six or seven intersections where safety and traffic-calming can be effected with the installation of 4-way stop signs and crosswalks. In fact, there may be lighted traffic signals that could easily be removed and replaced with 4-way stop installations.

Who knows? After walking with us, you may disagree. But please consider making the walk. As elected public officials, you are in the best position to advocate for your constituents and we'd love to have you as allies.

Two councilman quickly indicated their willingness to walk, but by the following morning, it had emerged that this statement caused consternation for a friend on Facebook.

He took a passive/aggressive approach of maligning those unnamed and persistently squeaky local wheels who presumably can’t ever accept the necessity of underachieving incrementalism, choosing instead to agitate incessantly for more intelligent and comprehensive efforts.

Included in the post was a meme depicting Gilda Radner’s famous Saturday Night Live character with the words, “It’s Always Something.”

This seemed to offer a good opportunity to engage my friend in substantive conversation about pressing community issues like pedestrian safety, and so I gently reminded him that not so long ago, we’d undertaken a yard sign campaign together, one designed at answering naysayers of the time with the word “Yes” (signifying progress), as opposed to "No" (to new taxes).

Then I innocently observed that the term “yes man” can mean different things to different people.


Shortly thereafter the social media conversation was expunged, and I was unfriended. Now the consternation was mine, as it dawned on me that ideas are mere bacteria when it comes to a germophobe's field of vision.


I’ve referred to non-agenda speaking time at city council meetings, and perhaps this is something with which not all readers are familiar.

Those citizens wishing to collectively address New Albany’s assembled city councilmen (there are no women) within the body’s native third-floor habitat have two opportunities to do so at each bimonthly gathering.

Near the beginning of a council meeting, citizens may speak about items adorning the evening's written agenda. Examples of fair game in this context include ordinances, resolutions, appointments and committee assignments.

At the very end of the meeting comes a second opportunity for public comment about non-agenda items. Some years back, this slot was moved from the meeting's start to its end owing to the disturbing propensity of taxpayer advocates and “potty police” using their allotted soapbox moments to fiscal-bait our elected officials.

This specific threat to the serenity of council representatives has long since abated, primarily because a generation of the civic-minded seems to have passed from the scene. Some died, some moved, and others probably lost the will to fight the inevitable fixes as they arise, one after the next, like the Asteroids video game of ancient times.

Those watchdogs were old-school, and whether I agreed with them or not, their dogged determination was admirable. They intended to be heard, come what may, and refused to go away until their opportunity was exercised.

Probably few of us are born with the chutzpah necessary to saunter into a public meeting and exercise our right to communicate with those representing us. It’s been a long and excruciating learning curve for me, one that remains ongoing.

What’s more, you’ll be shocked – SHOCKED – to learn that not all elected officials extend themselves with warmth and grace in these instances, especially if what the speaker has in mind to say isn’t what public servants wish to hear.

How many times have we witnessed an imperious Dan Coffey verbally bully a citizen during speaking time, as the council president of the moment sits on the gavel, staring off into space?

Of course, Coffey’s behavior reflects on them all, and in spite of his pseudo-populism, serial intemperance of this nature only reinforces the prevailing opinion that all but a few elected officials regard themselves as a breed apart, self-identifying as an elite of sorts, with secret handshakes and arcane rituals often taking precedence over helpfulness -- and this is in addition to political party fealty, with all its Kool-Aid consumption.

It’s almost a default setting. Within hours of being sworn in, elected officials begin thinking more about the officious prerogatives of their insular workplace than the nature of their work.

As the expanse of the pond grows smaller, the size of the fish in a councilman’s mirror balloons, and these are the times when an observer despairs at witnessing yet another shambolic performance of New Albany High School’s student council, as performed by a cast of 50-something pasty white guys.

However, I digress. They’re certainly not all bad, so let’s dispense with generalizations and address the larger issue of public speaking time at council meetings.


To be blunt, forcing an ordinary bloke to sit through two hours of Dan Coffey's harangues in order to say just a few words to his or her representatives constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and by design, requiring such a trial by dimwittedness obviously is a conscious effort on the part of this council (and its predecessors) to discourage public participation.

But shouldn't discussion and transparency be overtly stated goals of our public servants?

The answer is "yes," but you'll be hard-pressed serving this subpoena to Jeff Gahan, who’d rather concerned citizens schedule phone calls or one-on-one meetings with councilmen (not with the agoraphobic Gahan himself, heaven forbid, as the oracle must remain untainted by dialogue) rather than speak aloud in a public setting ... where control might be lost.

In each instance of public comment at council meetings, there is a sign-in sheet at the lectern, and if a prospective speaker fails to use it, there usually isn't a second chance -- until next meeting.

Rules, you know.

What's more, council president "Silent Pat" McLaughlin recently tightened the rules even more by stipulating that constituents must refrain from the extemporaneous.

Lord, how Team Gahan fears the unscripted.

There can be no doubt on this or any other nearby planet that McLaughlin's agenda tweak is aimed squarely at your friendly local blogger and his council-viewing colleague, Mark Cassidy.

That's because it has long been our habit to sign the sheet and indicate our intent with a question mark, thus allowing rebuttals or follow-up comments to be directed at whatever unchecked inanity just occurred.

Really, Pat, is it reasonable to expect a citizen to know exactly what he or she is compelled to say after being fed a whole meeting's worth of live ammo?

Think of it as our chance for three minutes of orgasmic pleasure following the prolonged agony of watching Coffey's pudgy index finger wagging like the rear-end plumage on a peacock in spring, or Bob Caesar as that starched-shirt 1920s-era schoolmaster warning against masturbatory anti-establishment individualism.

Ironically, the best way to forestall topical references from folks like us would be to shift the non-agenda public speaking time back to the beginning of the meeting.

Doing so would deprive us of opportunities for improvisation, wouldn't it?

Think about it, Pat, and while you’re at it, perhaps City Hall itself deserves overdue attention if your honest aim is to maintain order and decorum.

That’s because city council meetings typically are attended by most of the mayor's upper-level appointees, though never the corporeal dignitary of record, who sends his merry director of communications to emit hurried 45-second Access Hollywood updates of the sort that would have infuriated a red-faced Gahan back when he was city council president.

Memories are mighty short at the top.

In recent months, these appointed officials have perfected an elegantly matched Junior High School stratagem for displaying their displeasure with the public’s right to speak (and by extension, their own responsibility to listen) by deserting the chamber as one when non-agenda item speaking commences.

They rise choreographed as a group and rush into the corridor, tittering, safe in the knowledge that the mayor has their back and the Bud Light Lime’s on ice.

Admittedly this Great March is entertaining, although a third-party contractor must have devised the idea, seeing as not one of them is creative enough to think of it on his own.


At the city council meeting of Monday, March 6, my non-agenda public speaking time was devoted to a verbatim reading of an article that I thought might prove enlightening to layman and professional alike – perhaps even to a sociologist who campaigned for office on the basis of a dispassionate and analytical approach to governance.

This Is What Happens Inside The Brain Of A 'Yes Man', by David DiSalvo (Forbes)

By the time I navigated four whole feet to the veneered lectern, Gahan’s minions had bolted into the corridor with their schoolgirl giggles. Verily, not a Mich Ultra was safe.

However, in the constructive spirit of educational intent, and knowing that this news item would require more than three minutes to read, I helpfully informed President McLaughlin of this fact and gave him permission to halt me at the stopwatch’s behest.

Most of us feel a twinge of discomfort when disagreement looms in a conversation. We start socializing with what social psychologists call the “truth bias”--a default, low-conflict position our brains fall back on to keep our interactions generally simpatico. As with most personality drivers, this one operates along a spectrum: Some people are naturally more agreeable; others are more comfortable with conflict (with plenty of non-mutually exclusive overlap between the two positions).

But then there are some—and it’s a significant percentage—who will do almost anything to avoid conflict. For them, disagreement is more than a bit uncomfortable—it’s painful, and on a day-to-day basis extremely difficult to overcome even when situations warrant an assertive stance. They choose to deal with uncomfortable situations with uncritical agreement (hence labels like “yes man”), particularly if they feel overshadowed by another’s status. Part of what fuels cults of personality is a leader’s ability to elicit uncritical agreement by leveraging exactly this dynamic.

A new study turned a spotlight on the brain mechanics behind conflict avoidance and may have found at least part of the reason why it’s difficult to stop being so recklessly agreeable. As it turns out, the same brain areas that activate when someone experiences cognitive dissonance also fire up when we’re facing disagreement—dramatically more so for those on the chronic “yes” side of the conflict avoidance spectrum ...

At this juncture, my 3rd district city council representative Greg Phipps rose and departed the chamber. I was shocked.


We're left to conclude that whether they’re on Facebook or at a city council meeting, “yes” birds of a feather unfriend and flee together, although it’s at least nominally possible that as a sociologist, Phipps already knew about the study from a trade journal.



Recent columns:

March 2: ON THE AVENUES: Breaking up is hard to do. Just ask the Reichstag.

February 23: ON THE AVENUES: A stern-side view of Gravity Head, nineteen times over.

February 16: ON THE AVENUES: In 2014 as in 2015, then 2016, now 2017 ... yes, it's the "Adamite Chronicles: Have muzzle, will drivel."

February 9: ON THE AVENUES: I'd stop drinking, but I'm no quitter.

February 2: ON THE AVENUES: A luxury-obsessed Jeff Gahan has packed a board and now seeks to break the New Albany Housing Authority. Can we impeach him yet?

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