SLO City Council, a bizarre reality show
May 24, 2015
By KAREN VELIE
It was supposed to be a workshop about the San Luis Obispo City Council working together with an acceptable level of decorum. It turned into an eight-hour session with curses, yelling, threats to walk out and fist pounding on furniture by Councilman John Ashbaugh.
Behaviors were turning the Council’s work on city issues into some kind of embarrassing public display, Mayor Jan Marx said.
“The public is watching the City Council meetings like some bizarre reality show,” Marx said.
The Council brought in facilitator Trudy Sopp from the Centre for Organization Effectiveness in La Jolla. Before Thursday’s workshop, Sopp interviewed the city manager, city attorney and the five Council members. She also reviewed tapes of multiple meetings.
The majority of staff and Council member complaints were about Ashbaugh interrupting his fellow Council members and engaging in long-winded rants, she told the Council.
Following are some of the highlight of the eight-hour contentious workshop:
Sopp began by listed concerns from city staffers and Council members. Sopp offered Marx several suggestions for running an effective and efficient Council meetings including turning off Ashbaugh’s microphone as needed.
“Isn’t it like pompous?” Marx asked. “This is my turn to get roasted.”
Staff complained about Ashbaugh’s habit of asking question after question. That drew a reply from Ashbaugh that he was attempting to educate the public about issues before the Council. He said he was, after all, an educator.
But, Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson said that during presentations, Council members should focus on facts.
“Early questions should be about facts,” Christianson said “Even though this is between Marx and Ashbaugh, others are impacted.”
Marx offered a comment about the process.
“I call it arm wrestling,” Marx said.
Sopp then suggested that Council members stop yelling during meetings in order to bring back decorum noting that most of the yelling, in the past, occurred during interruptions.
Ashbaugh replied that a raised voice was an effective means of getting a point across.
Marx did not agree.
“To me it is immature and really embarrassing,” Marx said.
Councilman Dan Carpenter responded by asking Ashbaugh to stop calling people names and using God’s name in vain during closed sessions.
“It happens in open session too, we have yelling and name calling,” Christianson said. “It is usually John.”
Sopp said that Ashbaugh’s interruptions and failures to stay on topic had led others, primarily Carpenter, to shut down during deliberations.
“There is a desire for Marx to keep things on topic,” Sopp said. “You guys have let this go on too long.”
Sopp then noted that Marx needed to take on a stronger role when heading meetings.
With the exception of Ashbaugh, Marx had worked well with the Council, she said.
“I’ve always had a very good time chairing meetings, except with this Council,” Marx said. “I end up dreading vice council most.
Vice Council Ashbaugh’s behaviors were not disruptive when then-Mayor Dave Romero was chair, she said.
“It feels to me like you are wrestling me for dominance,” Marx said to Ashbaugh. “You didn’t act that way with Dave Romero.”
“If I hear three simple words, ‘out of order,’ I will usually stop,” Asbaugh said
Carpenter said that Christianson had regularly tried to get Asbaugh to stop interrupting others, to no avail.
Ashbaugh slammed his fist on the table at that point.
“How do you know what will happen?” he yelled. “When I am argumentative, those three words would help.”
But Mayor Marx disagreed.
“I’ve done that in closed session,” Marx responded. “It didn’t work.”
Councilman Dan Rivoire said there need to be consequences when Ashbaugh violates the rules of order.
“When Mayor Marx says you are off topic, you need to stop,” Rivoire said to Ashbaugh.
“And I do,” Ashbaugh responded. The rest of the Council shook their heads, no, as the words left his mouth.
Sopp told Ashbaugh that she had timed his speeches and discovered he took 10 minutes to ask questions while the remaining Council members spoke for about one minute each.
Mayor Marx noted her long relationship with Ashbaugh and the problems he creates with interruptions and off-topic rants.
“This is especially frustrating because John and I have been friends for over 25 years,” Marx said.
Sopp asked Ashbaugh if he could subordinate the role of educator for the good of the Council.
“If I am out of order, I will stop speaking,” Ashbaugh replied. “I have my own relationship with all of you. I have no relationship with Carpenter, and I don’t want one.”
He then characterized the process as one designed to silence him
“It doesn’t matter, I am who I am and who I am will be a lot more quiet,” Ashbaugh said, adding, “What you are saying is ‘Ashbaugh shut up.’ “
City Attorney Christine Dietrick said that the staff and Council’s concerns were about the impact on public participation.
“We are trying to be helpful,” Dietrick said. “Our concern is that your delivery style is causing the public to disengage. We want to help you. This is not directed at a character flaw.”
Ashbaugh changed the subject by accusing Carpenter of asking to stay off several side committees and regional boards as a means of freeing up time to run for the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. Ashbaugh then claimed Carpenter had announced his candidacy in January.
Carpenter explained that he had a personal issue in the fall that prompted his request and that he did not announce his candidacy until March. He said Ashbaugh’s allegations were untrue.
Ashbaugh responded by yelling, “Out of order.”
Sopp explained that out of order pertained to Council meetings and not the workshop.
Ashbaugh then jumped up from his seat saying he wasn’t going to take the “vicious attacks” anymore and he was leaving.
After several of his fellow Council members pleaded with him to stay, Ashbaugh sat back down and the topic turned to interruptions during Council deliberations.
“I need an example,” Ashbaugh said.
Carpenter described a discussion about land use when he spoke of three meetings and Ashbaugh interrupted claiming incorrectly that there had been only two meetings on the topic.
“We were both correct,” Ashbaugh said. “My reference was to the two meetings following the initial meeting. I wasn’t trying to dismiss Carpenter, I was trying to protect the Cultural Heritage Committee.”
“The point is that you were not recognized,” Carpenter said. “This is about your inability to control yourself.”
City Manager Katie Lichtig interceded.
“It is not about who is right,” Lichtig said. “We feel like we are having to intercede with two parents fighting.”
Mayor Marx counseled self-discipline.
“John, you have to be more restrained,” she said.
“It is taking all my ability to stay restrained right now,” Ashbaugh said, his voice raised.
Carpenter chided Ashbaugh about the need to conduct the workshop.
“We need to make agreements to use three words because you are acting like a child,” Carpenter said.
Ashbaugh looked over at Carpenter and said,” Out of order.”
Sopp told Ashbaugh again that “out of order” pertained only to Council meetings.
“I was being personally attacked in a most vicious way,” Ashbaugh replied.
Marx spoke out.
“You have been told at least four times and you are still not listening,” she said to Ashbaugh.
In the end, the Council agreed that when a member violates procedures and policy, Marx will either say out of order or call for a recess.
“I am extremely skeptical these rules will work,” Ashbaugh said.
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