Sunday, February 19, 2017

Valentines Day at the County Commission

Tuesday's county commission meeting felt like a scene in a reality TV series: tangled plot and subplots, threats and harsh words, naked human emotions on public display.

The obvious tensions between Chairwoman Isabella Solis and County Manager Julia Brown,
and between County Sheriff Kiki Vigil and Commissioner Billy Garrett, reminded me of family quarrels. I recalled my father saying sternly to us, “I don't care who started it, but I'm finishing it.”
Citizens and a few county employees spoke up to defend Ms. Brown from what seemed an effort to fire her, for reasons that seemed vague. Many were angry. Some threatened lawsuits or organized electoral opposition. 

Perhaps it's my advancing age, but I suspect most folks, though influenced by some large or small amount of selfishness and greed, would like to be good and tend to believe they are. When they behave badly, or in a fashion that you or I might abhor, they are usually not trying to be evil. Rather, we all have constructed quite complex and varied prisms through which we view the world. Through these, each of us sees our own conduct as perfectly rational and right.

Watching Tuesday's meeting reminded me of what seems a universal difficulty: being so much ourselves, seeing through our own eyes and emotional filters, we can never quite get a fix on how others perceive us.

I learned that lesson as a young lawyer. A poet, former civil rights worker, and underdog-lover, I couldn't figure out why my secretary was crying after I pointed out a mistake, until I realized (or someone explained) that she saw not the nice kid I felt like but her new, powerful boss. Potential tyrant. My words had caused fear or pain I hadn't intended or imagined.

I should have learned it earlier, when the headmaster, as he expelled me from school, said I lacked compassion. How could that be, I wondered? I was kind and friendly to the workers, though I rebelled against the autocratic masters [teachers] who seemed to misuse their power. I hadn't conceived that, as a mere student, my mischievous words might actually wound adults, who seemed all-powerful. 

Julia Brown seems (and sees herself as) a good person. She believes in justice and fairness, and has worked against discrimination. But she is also the Boss. When she wonders how employees can be afraid to bring some complaint to her, the “her” she's thinking of is the inner Julia, generally trying to do right, while the “her” the employee perceives may seem powerful, sharp-tongued, and closer to supervisors than to the supervised. The employee has heard tales – true, false, or exaggerated – of her treatment of others. The employee may also see her as part of the elite: the folks with advanced degrees, flowing English, and a certain self-assurance that can come across as a sense of entitlement.

Isabella Solis likely feels nervous, being suddenly in a position with unfamiliar rules and procedures but having to act quickly and confidently under a bright spotlight. But most citizens and employees see none of that, only the chairwoman's power. She too wants to do right, I believe.

Billy and Kiki not only can't agree, but can't even conceive of each other as sincere.

During the closed session, my wife and I take refuge in Nessa's. Sitting together in the small café (at Picacho and 2nd), talking in between bites of Nessa's imaginative and tasty food, and gabbing with James about Valentine's Day and his delight that he and Nessa are to be parents . . . heals us.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 19 February 2017, and also on the newspaper's website (under the perhaps unfortunate title, Empathy for Others Lacking in County Drama) and KRWG-TV's website.

[The Sun-News headline should not be read to say I'm singling out the County.  Lack of understanding or empathy marks most of us in too many situations, personal, and professional; I called it a "universal difficulty"; and it's one of those problems like alcoholism, which we would do well never to claim we've eradicated in ourselves.  In fact, if we all looked in the mirror each morning and said, "I'm a biased person who doesn't try hard enough to understand others and see how they formed their points of view," the world would be a better place -- although as phrased it's too unwieldy a sentence to bother with each morning.  Also sounds too damned preachy for my taste.]

[But while I don't mean at all to single out the County, plenty of people came up to me afterward and said some version of, "Wasn't that disgraceful?"  To some degree they blamed different figures, depending on their own views and allegiances; but I met no one who was pleased by the tone or content of the meeting.  The Sun-News's editorial stance is at "County board should be more deliberate."]      

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