“The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself”
When I was very young, my parents taught me this quote, first spoken by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address. My parents described how the words had made an indelible impression and a difference in their lives. It occurs to me now that we might consider the timeless relevance of this phrase in 2017 Ashland. Of course, the context is different, but the words still resonate, even eighty-four years later.
Some of us who live in Ashland are indeed afraid. We fear what might happen if we speak truth to power, if we take the risk and say in public meetings what we truly think and feel, if we speak the truth of our beliefs and values, even as we watch them trampled by elected officials. Fear can be a paralyzing force.
While serving on the City Council for eight years, all too often I witnessed citizens daring to speak before the Council, citizens who were subsequently shamed and ridiculed by the mayor and some of my fellow councilors for their efforts. On such occasions, I felt both shocked and embarrassed. On one memorable evening in Council Chambers during the Public Forum portion of the Council meeting, two citizens stepped forward to offer comments. The first was a gentle but direct criticism of the Council and mayor regarding the lack of transparency and their apparent reluctance to accept criticism directed at them. After this woman spoke and was walking to her seat, the mayor announced in an officious and derogatory way that this speaker was completely wrong. Then another person spoke, criticizing staff for not doing their job in a matter to do with planning and community development. The mayor interrupted him mid-statement, telling him if he couldn’t speak more positively, he must sit down. This man took a deep breath, shortened his presentation to the Council, and hurried to his seat.
The message from the mayor and Council was and is clear: “Don’t you citizens dare criticize us or the city staff. Criticism amounts to a lack of civility.”
I beg to differ. Elected officials’ unwillingness to hear criticism and their defensive, angry, ridiculing responses to such criticism impinge on and erode every citizen’s right to free speech. We ought to be and are free to say whatever we wish to our elected officials; the Constitution–the law of the land–grants us that right. Yet this is exactly where fear takes root: when citizens witness what happens to those who dare speak truth to power in our city and are summarily made to sit down and shut up.
The implicit message is, “Be civil or don’t speak at all,” by which is meant, “Praise is welcome. Criticism is not.” Other tactics employed by our mayor to curtail free speech in Public Forum or during public commentaries on agenda issues include: “Citizens may not speak if another speaker has already addressed their opinion or idea.” “Complaints about city staff are out of bounds in council meetings.” “Don’t mention anyone by name in public comments.” And “Don’t question us or staff in public.”
Whether intended or not, the subtext is that, if citizens cross the mayor or Council in any way, there will be repercussions. Faced with this implicit threat, many in our community shrink from offering their views in public meetings. Fear has firmly taken hold.
Those who do dare to speak often feel they must carefully edit their comments, speaking only in glowing terms of the mayor, council, and staff. To do otherwise brings on the threat that that citizen will be remembered and, if they dare come to Council with future concerns, their comments will be discounted and Council will vote against anything they propose because they are viewed as a thorn in the side of city government.
If you doubt for a moment that such overt bullying of our citizens occurs, I encourage you to watch online videos of City Council meetings and of the recent budget meetings held this past April, meetings that excluded the duly appointed citizen members of the committee from expressing their views. In these meetings, the mayor said that Council need not worry about the citizens on this committee because they, the Council, are the true deciders. In this instance, elected officials have sought to bully our citizens into acquiescence and submission, especially those on the budget committee who have dared to raise red flags about the unsustainability of our budget going forward. Despite the bullying, these brave citizens have issued a clarion warning: The City of Ashland is in grave fiscal trouble.
Faced with this fiscal crisis, the Council and mayor have been essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. PERS will take us down if something isn’t done to curtail its unsustainable growth. Yes, there is an answer to this looming crisis, and it must be implemented starting now. Perhaps out of fear, the Council obstinately refuses to face the iceberg that lies dead ahead, declining to listen to the voices of well-informed, deeply concerned citizens.
Fears must be faced head on or they will run our lives and bring on our ruin. Citizens must rise to the challenge that, even if our leaders ridicule you in public and take retributive action against you, you must speak your truth to power. For ultimately, the real power resides with you, with your vote.
Former Ashland City Councilor