Commissioners Lack Comity

Lane County’s Board of Commissioners is promising a new attitude, if not also a new direction, when its two newest members are seated in 2011. I hope so.

Newspaper writers, like diplomats, often gain access to conversations and personality profiles that don’t make it into print. A journalist may be protecting a source, creating a debt that later can be leveraged for a big story or a juicy quote. Other times, the calculation is less professional than just plain human — everybody is entitled to a bad day, a clumsy quote, or a touch of paranoia.

If the Lane County Commissioners forge a new path, I hope they will steer away from a certain style I encountered with one commissioner a couple of months ago. Not exactly a WikiLeaks-style revelation, I offer it as just one personal interaction with one particular commissioner.

I won’t name him, because it doesn’t matter. I tell the tale because it portrays a particular posture that often keeps the board as a whole from being effective. If things are going to be different, this is part of what will have to change. And the change is more likely to occur if plenty of people know what it looks like.

Setting the stage, I was one of hundreds gathered to celebrate a particular piece of good news downtown. It was a beautiful autumn evening. Spirits were high. People were hanging around, soaking up the good vibes. I shook the hand of this commissioner, then put my hand on his shoulder and warned him that I thought he was on the wrong side of a particular issue and that I intended to write about it.

Good vibes instantly drained, his eyes narrowed. “Just be sure you get our side of the story.” Each word was clipped, over-articulated, as if he was speaking to someone for whom English is a foreign language.

“It’s bigger than this issue,” I countered. “I’m looking for you five to go beyond your particular constituencies and do the harder work of uniting around a single vision. Coming together will require you to be leaders, not just representatives.”

He was locked and loaded. “I understand what you’re saying, Don. But the truth is we’re doing that.”

I must confess a certain skepticism wells up in me whenever I hear somebody utter “the truth is.” I assume what follows the phrase will be something else.

I took a half step back, trying to diffuse the situation a bit, before continuing. “I don’t see a lot of 5-0 votes. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But have you looked at the facts?” he replied, talking fast now. “The Register-Guard likes to blow this all out of proportion. You’ve got to look at the consent calendar. Those are votes too!”

I objected that those are procedural votes, necessary stuff, but easy ones. I’m not sure I got a full sentence out. His finger was pointing at my chest. He was just getting started. “Ninety-nine percent of our votes are 5-0. Eight-tenths of one percent of our votes are 4-1. Only .2% are 3-2.”

“We both know —”

“— I’m giving you the facts. Numbers don’t lie.”

I tried to quote Mark Twain, once a newspaperman himself, who listed three kinds of untruths: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But the velocity of our interchange was not leaving room for anecdotes.

Abandoning hope, we stopped, shook hands amicably, and he repeated his closing argument, “Numbers don’t lie.”

I woke the next day, haunted by the precision of his claim. Any calculation down to tenths of a percent would require a thousand votes. Try as I may, I couldn’t find anywhere near that many, even including each separate item within the board’s consent calendars. He had to know I would check.

My brother’s favorite riposte would have fit better than my Twain anecdote: “C’mon. I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”

I decided to drop the issue. I didn’t want to sway votes in any direction. But now the campaigns are over and the governing must continue.

I hope all five commissioners find new ways to be less defensive and more creative about reaching common ground. If we’re all watching for it, the odds will increase in everyone’s favor.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.