By Martha Quillen
‘Twas some weeks before Christmas and all through our state,
The people were trying to temper their hate.
Then one night I pulled on warm mittens and stockings
And headed downtown for some last-minute shopping,
And there in the shadows, near where I had parked,
A couple of council members stood in the dark,
While a group of angry citizens gathered around.
And it looked like a melee might soon resound.
What have you done to us?” the citizens cried.
“Only what we thought was best,” the councilmen replied.
And no truer words have ever been spoken,
Which is likely why modern America is broken.
When I read Mike Rosso’s November editorial about Drew Nelson, Salida’s new city administrator, I was filled with admiration. Mike’s political analysis was clear, succinct, and closely matched my own view – back then. As the story goes, Nelson was arrested in January, and pled guilty to charges regarding “felony-menacing-domestic violence, and prohibited use of a weapon.” Yet even though Salida council members knew that, they didn’t publicly reveal Nelson’s arrest until after he was hired. Rosso wrote that “our council was caught off-guard by the response to this matter,” and labeled it a “rookie error” by our neophyte council. He expressed his hope that Nelson’s employment would prove to be “the right choice.” And that’s exactly what I thought in November, because commenting about Nelson when he had just moved to Salida seemed mean.
But after attending the December 6 Salida council meeting, I changed my mind about what was really at issue here. I watched in fascination as Mayor Wood, and then Dan Shore, attempted to excuse inexcusable behavior. In fact, their reasoning struck me as so absurd I thought it would make a good Saturday Night Live skit – especially Shore’s insistence that Nelson had done nothing that should be construed as dangerous behavior or gun-play.
Over the course of several months, Salida hosted several meetings to discuss this issue, and I attended the last one, at which both Shore and Wood made it clear they wouldn’t change their minds, but nonetheless agreed it was important for people to air their grievances. That stance, however, struck me as curiously patronizing and classic: Oh, those poor, overemotional women. They can speak, but we won’t listen.
Apparently getting drunk, firing a gun in a residential neighborhood, and then handing your wife a hammer and insisting she hit you with it is not particularly disturbing behavior in their view. And I suppose they had a point, since no one was injured or killed. But then I listened as woman after woman presented facts, figures and stats about the prevalence of domestic violence in America and in our own community, and I started wondering what the council would do if a bunch of us walked across the street and fired guns in protest. I suspected they would not excuse our behavior.
And it occurred to me how absurd my own position was. I pride myself on being a person who champions equal treatment under the law. Yet I had unconsciously assumed that equal treatment in this case was too cruel. How could we embarrass an educated, white, upper middle class guy (who could afford a good lawyer) by denying him Salida’s top administrative job? Yet if a black man had fired off a few rounds in his inner-city neighborhood, he would all too likely have been gunned down by authorities. And if a construction worker had displayed such behavior in his neighborhood trailer park less than a year ago, he would likely still be in jail. As it turned out, without even realizing it, I harbored a whole different set of values for rich, white guys.
But now, a national Me-Too movement contends that discounting aggressive or illegal behavior as “only human” or “personal,” has contributed to America’s problems with toxic workplaces, domestic violence, gun violence, rape, depression, suicide, murder, mass murder and inequality. This burgeoning movement holds that even stellar human beings at the highest echelons of our society should be held accountable for their actions, including executives, priests, athletes, political leaders, and even superstars such as Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein.
But the movement’s purpose is not to hurt perpetrators and their families. It is to reduce aggression and get people to take aberrant behavior more seriously. Toward that end, many locals shared their stats, stories and concerns, and the people I heard were neither insulting nor unsympathetic toward Drew Nelson. They merely held that someone who had so recently pled guilty on such charges shouldn’t be Salida’s chief administrator. Ironically it was Nelson’s defenders who personalized the matter by citing his depression, marital problems, on-going counseling, and discussing whether Nelson was likely to re-offend in order to justify his hiring. But those things weren’t really the issue. The issue was whether Nelson was the best candidate to serve as our city’s top officer in charge of public relations, overseeing personnel, and setting the tone for our city and it’s departments, including a police department charged with handling domestic misconduct.
was impressed by the speakers’ thoughtful criticisms. My opinion was swayed less by the opposition, than by Nelson’s proponents, who I suspect were neither as naive, nor blameless, as they pretended. On the contrary, Councilwoman Cheryl Brown-Kovacic admitted that the council should have been more forthcoming about the charges against Nelson before hiring him.
Councilman Mike Bowers, a former police officer, said he’d expressed very serious reservations about hiring someone who’d been charged with illegal gun violations, but he hadn’t wanted to vote against an administrator he would have to work with. And Councilman Justin Critelli admitted that he favored another candidate, but had known that Nelson was the council’s choice and had wanted to be a “team player.”
The council is not supposed to be a team. They are supposed to be our representatives. Yet they don’t represent us. And that is our real problem, locally and nationally. Right now, the majority of members on the Salida council represent an expansionist viewpoint of how our community should progress, which is likely why Nelson was chosen. Winter Park is nowhere near as big as Salida in residential population, but it has a prominent ski resort, lots of tourists, and is rapidly growing condos, and Nelson clearly has experience with housing booms and business, a boon for all Salidans, right? Or perhaps a nightmare, since another large contingent supports a more minimalist approach to growth.
Make no mistake, whichever side holds office in Salida, they use their lawyers, hired hands, and friends to get their way. And as for compromise? Or actually listening to citizens in order to make our city more livable for all? In our partisan times, public servants seldom seek office to serve citizens. Instead, they usually aim to change people and places.
People keep telling me that modern American governments are too large and complex to run things the old-fashioned, democratic way. But democracy doesn’t mean we have to know how to fix a treatment plant. What Americans are presumably voting for are leaders who represent the citizens’ needs and concerns. What we are getting instead are councils and Congresses that thoroughly support plans and proposals that are enormously beneficial for select segments of our population.
It was refreshing to have our council actually consider something other than money and development for a change. But our community is fractured and nothing has changed. Please, elected officials, party affiliates, and hyper-partisan citizens on every side, let’s embrace democracy. Or if that’s too much to ask, let us at least preserve the peace by reducing manipulative backroom politicking, and dispense with the popular strategy of inflicting viciously divisive done deals and decisions on the people.