The Gonzales City Council meeting was coming to an end Thursday, Aug. 10, when there was an exchange between Councilwoman Ronda Miller, Mayor Steve Sucher and Councilwoman Sherrie Koepp that revealed tension and dissention among those on the dais.
After Sucher asked his fellow council members if they had any items that needed to be placed on a future agenda, Miller told Sucher she thinks “it's time we stopped calling our office staff ‘the girls.’”
“When a girl becomes an adult, she's referred to as a woman, and I know it's done sometimes out of habit will no ill intentions for most people, but instead of yielding to habit and precedent, I think that we should be intentional in how we address ourselves,” Miller said.
Sucher responded by telling Miller they were supposed to be determining if there were any outstanding agenda items that needed to be placed on a future agenda.
“If you can couch the language into how we would discuss this on a future agenda, I’m fine with that, but I am not up for having an open conversation towards the end of the meeting,” Sucher said.
Miller responded by telling Sucher she believes “it is something we need to discuss publicly.”
“We have a right to speak on issues, echo our constituents and concerns and things and that's what I'm trying to do,” Miller said. “Instead of yielding to habit, we should be intentional in how we address each other. Referring to a man as a boy is considered inappropriate and the same standard should be held for women. I'm aware that sometimes women use the term girl as a term of endearment. That may be something in the lexicon language but it has no place in the public professional setting.
“It is becoming a more frequent allegation of sexual discrimination allegations as well and that has been brought up. No one refers to Sherrie and I as girls on this council, so I think a conscious and sustained effort is required to change. I'm asking that we all be more mindful of the power and significance of word choice, and that we all become diligent in ensuring each staff is treated as a respected professional, as we establish a more respectful culture in the work environment.”
Koepp then took exception to being included by Miller in her statement and said “I would just like to say that I do not condone that, nor do I agree with (Miller). And I will say girls to staff if I choose to; that is my right.”
Sucher stopped the conversation from going further and the meeting was hastily adjourned.
The entire exchange between the three parties was no longer than four minutes in length. And while Miller makes a valid point — we should endeavor to choose our words carefully because words have meaning beyond their definitions — it would have been better for her to have brought up her concerns perhaps during the closed session that had been held prior to the terse exchange.
Discussions about personnel issues are covered as an allowable exception to the Texas Open Meetings Act and may be held behind closed doors due to privacy concerns. If city staffers are upset by the terminology that is being used to address them, that is an excellent time for the council to discuss that behavior and set a course for corrective action.
By bringing it up during an open session, Miller’s good intentions of standing up for city workers who may have been wronged have now become muddled by what could be seen as an attempt to publicly shame or embarrass her fellow council members.
Gonzales City Council is not alone when it comes to these types of exchanges during public proceedings. As publisher of the Gonzales Inquirer, I have witnessed similar instances of public officials castigating each other or members of the public (and vice versa) during meetings of the Nixon City Council, Smiley City Council and Gonzales County Commissioners Court. Some of these have devolved into full-on shouting matches with accusations hurled like Nolan Ryan fastballs at a batter’s head.
It is representative of the politics of the day, where personalities run amok and soundbites are exchanged as currency, when it should be policies that lead the way and bipartisanship and collaboration should be the objective.
The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is often quoted as saying, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.” While she represented the left, more liberal, branch of the court, she was known for having an excellent relationship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia as well as with Justice Clarence Thomas, who now is the senior member of the right wing of the court.
They disagreed with one another on most matters of policy, but always did so with respect for one another and without trying to turn their comments into political capital. Wouldn’t it be great if all of our government officials and representatives could aspire to emulate their example?