Evening of 9.10.20: Updated with full session video. As always, the best record is a recording. Original post follows —
Last night, at a special meeting of the Whitewater Common Council, that public body voted 5-1 against consideration of a municipal ordinance to regulate mass gatherings during the pandemic. (The agenda packet, with the ordinance that has now been set aside, is available online.) The city manager and staff will, however, try to craft a proposal (although likely not a revised mass-gatherings ordinance) concerning public health now that our local campus is in session.
That’s a simple description of the meeting, but there were revealing moments last night (and from trends building before the meeting) that deserve separate and detailed consideration. Those will be presented on their own, with accompanying video clips and transcriptions of those clips, next week.
A few remarks —
1. Ripe to Rotten. The last FREE WHITEWATER post on the Whitewater Common Council mentioned that a mass-gathering ordinance was not yet ready (ripe) for commentary. A week later, that ordinance proposal has gone from not-yet-ripe to rotten. Local politics and culture always made that specific proposal a hard sell. Reacting too quickly to a proposal is something like walking toward an illusory oasis in the desert: it disappears by the time one arrives at its supposed location. See Whitewater Common Council Meeting, 9.1.20: Culture & Prohibitions.
There will be something next proposed; it’s unlikely to be the same thing.
2. The Interim Chancellor. The interim chancellor at UW-Whitewater, Dr. Greg Cook, spoke a few times during the session in favor of an ordinance regulating mass gatherings off campus. He alternated during the meeting between an insistence that his hands were tied without an ordinance, to appeals to economic dependency, to public health, or to acknowledgment of campus planning failures. He didn’t take a single tack, but several, each at a different point in the meeting. Part brow-beating, part conciliatory, part lamentation, but nothing to advance the ordinance.
(In fact, the ordinance wasn’t about to pass, and the early 5-1 straw poll vote against confirmed as much. There’s a problem university administrations in Whitewater have had, for many years, understanding how non-student residents perceive them. It’s a small town, and that understanding should not be hard, but it has bedeviled more than one chancellor, interim or permanent.)
3. The Amateur Epidemiologist. Whitewater’s common council president has advanced himself as something of an amateur epidemiologist, where he both recites statistics and offers presumptions about them. He’s free to presume, but he has no training whatever to undergird those presumptions. When he’s speaking in council or writing as an ersatz reporter, he’s providing his untutored assessment of communicable disease metrics.
He’d do better simply to read the metrics without comment, as his own views only incite criticism from those whose training is no less than his (that is, whose training is equally inadequate).
(In the case of the school district, he has twice now – on 9.1.20 and 9.9.20 – cited as a district measure one that is no longer the school board’s adopted metric for coronavirus spread. For the school board change, see Whitewater School Board Meeting, 8.24.20: 5 Points.)
4. Municipal Prohibition. Banning gatherings was always going to be problematic in Whitewater, with concerns about freedom of activity, favoritism, and a need for the university to establish what it had done in detail before a municipal ban. I’ve supported a mask ordinance, but have had considerable doubts about the ability of the community to enforce stringent measures in a time of cultural and political division. As before: “And yet, a draft ordinance, an adopted ordinance, or a litigated ordinance will never matter more than a culture that doesn’t believe in the aims of the ordinance.”
Could all this have been different with earlier, and more, local planning? It seems possible, but then again this was always going to be fraught considering a national leadership that for months denied or delayed concerted action.
A topic to address next week —
5. Open Government and Public Comment. For over a decade, the Whitewater Common Council has respected principles of open government in its meetings, including fair public comment opportunities for residents. There is in this city, to her credit, an ordinance on open government that has served this city well for the last ten years. See Municipal Code, Chapter 2.62 (Whitewater Transparency Enhancement Ordinance).
Since April, there have been three council meetings in which there has been a notable retreat from the prior, sound practice of public comments at meetings. The session of 9.9.20 was the most egregious example of that departure, but there have been other departures or deprecations of the public comment period in the last five months.
Those three have been three too many. No one serves this city that way; this should not go unanswered.