Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Contemplating the Common Council

It has become commonplace to criticize the Common Council--as a body and certain members in particular--for incivility and lack of decorum. At the informal meeting last week, a high school girl, who betrayed her naivete about city government structure by asking who had appointed the aldermen, felt emboldened to scold our elected officials for bullying and being disrespectful. John Mason, in an article on Monday ostensibly about a resolution to come before the Council the next day, couldn't resist seguing into an account of the author of that resolution's brash responses to questions from his colleagues and audience members. In his closing statement at the mayoral debate last week, Mayor Hallenbeck riffed on his challenger's campaign slogan, "Government that respects you," calling her to task for the rude behavior of an alderman candidate, running on the same party line as she, reciting a litany of the alderman's offenses, and claiming that these examples of another's alleged disrespect made her campaign one of hypocrisy.

Without condoning uncivil behavior, it is certainly possible to sympathize with the frustration and impatience expressed by Council members when, after extensive consensus building efforts, aldermen break ranks at the last minute and withdraw their support for initiatives; when a resolution is opposed by an alderman who is a member of the committee that brought it forward because he was absent when it was discussed in committee; when an alderman with a clear interest in maintaining the status quo questions the motives of those wanting to amend a possibly unconstitutional policy.   

Criticism is sometimes directed toward Council president Don Moore for failing to run an orderly meeting and for not keeping the aldermen in check. The notion that Moore could run a tighter ship brings to mind Mim Traver, who was Common Council president during the last decade of the 20th century. Back then, there was no informal meeting of the Council at which resolutions were introduced and discussed. The Council met once a month and voted on resolutions, many of which the aldermen hadn't seen before that evening and which the public never got to see. A memorable feature of the Council back in those days was the requirement that members of the public get permission from Traver prior to the meeting to be allowed to address the Council.

Sam Pratt shared this memory, from the spring of 1998, of seeking permission from Traver to speak at a Council meeting. He went to her house to make his appeal. (She lived on Allen Street, just below Third, in the house that is now the Country Squire B&B.) Opening the door only a crack in answer to his knock, Traver quizzed him about what he wanted to discuss and then said, "Young man [Pratt was 29 at the time], do you really think you know something that the Common Council of the City of Hudson does not already know?" Thinking quickly, Pratt replied, "No, I doubt that I do, but I would be grateful for a chance to speak anyway." Permission was grudgingly granted.

The council meetings presided over by Mim Traver may have been more "civil" than some of the raucous meetings that have taken place at City Hall in recent years, but on the issue of respect for the citizens of Hudson, it can be argued that more respect was shown by Moore last week when he patiently explained the nature of representative government to a high school girl and then listened with acceptance as she scolded him and the aldermen for bad behavior.


  1. Carole, this is a wonderful account of democracy in action: the dynamic between leadership and public participation. We all have been to public meetings at which citizens express their opinions (many of them "rants") and elected officials listen (or not). If a public official is smart, he/she will weigh those public opinions on the scales of representation (is this what my constituents want?) and of electability (will it hurt my chances of keeping my job?). So, yes, Don Moore may be more "enlightened" than Mim Traver. But there is a important part of this dynamic often lost in the heat of the moment: the constituents not at the table: our ancestors, our heritage, and the voice of reason that research and open discussion add to any question. All of that -- including research and history -- is what a Mayor or Common Council president must preside over -- and exhibit leadership enough to move all these factions forward.


  2. Thank you for this, Carole. Perspective.

  3. "When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people."