Andy Stone: A stone’s throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Physicists say that with the right equipment, you still can detect fading echoes of the Big Bang that marked the start of our universe a few hundred billion years ago.
Years from now, I suspect, with the right equipment, you’ll still be able to detect the fading echoes of the Big Kablooey from the Aspen City Council work session explosion a couple of weeks ago.
In case you missed the story, what happened was this: Marilyn Marks, a local gadfly/activist/troublemaker/ concerned resident (take your pick), showed up at an Aspen City Council work session with a TV camera crew. Her plan was to record the work session and broadcast it on GrassRoots TV. They already do that for regular council meetings, but this was a work session.
Marks had been asking the council to broadcast work sessions for a while, but the council hadn’t taken any action to ask ” and pay ” GrassRoots TV to do it. So Marks decided she’d put her money where her mouth was and pay GrassRoots TV herself.
And when Marks and the video crew showed up … kablooey!
By all accounts, it was an impressive explosion ” fireworks suitable for display over Aspen Mountain on the Fourth of July. Names were called. Feelings were hurt. Nastiness abounded.
And, as time has passed, the original kablooey doesn’t seem to have faded away. Some apologies have been offered. Some have not ” and apparently never will be. Waves of outrage spread in ever-greater circles. Letters were sent to editors. E-mails circulated.
So, what was it all about?
One part was about legal/policy issues.
One part was strictly personal.
The legal issue was whether the council should indeed hire GrassRoots TV to record work sessions and, perhaps more fundamentally, whether the council had granted ” or even needed to grant ” permission for that video crew to record the meeting.
Council members argued that making any decision on the spot, under pressure, was inappropriate. A formal policy decision should be made only at a regular council meeting after full public discussion.
That may be true, but it is also irrelevant.
There was no need to decide about paying GrassRoots, since Ms. Marks was already paying for the session. Paying for future sessions was a separate matter, to be handled separately.
The question of whether council permission was needed for a camera crew is slightly trickier.
I talked this week with a lawyer who handles open-meeting cases (among other matters) for The Aspen Times and nearly every newspaper in the state.
Under Colorado’s open-meeting laws, there’s no question that a council session is open to the public. Anyone can come in and listen. And take notes. And publish a story.
But cameras are a different matter. Think about courtrooms. A courtroom is generally open to the public, but you can’t bring a TV camera in without the judge’s permission.
In the end, the attorney told me, the question of video recording a council meeting is “a gray area.” In other words, no one’s been to court to fight it out and get a clear legal decision.
Under the circumstances (and this is strictly my opinion, not the lawyer’s) the smart thing for the council to have done would have been to notice the camera, shrug and go on with their meeting.
After all, they already have video cameras at regular council meetings ” and there’s simply no way the Aspen City Council is going to be able to get away with banning cameras from their meetings. No way.
(Personal note: I, of course, favor maximum openness in all government deliberations. I think council meetings should be held out on the street, in the middle of town. With council members stark naked. A grim image, I admit. And it would probably reduce public attendance. But, on the other hand, it would keep the meetings short. Particularly in winter.)
So let’s forget the alleged legal/policy issue. It’s a red herring. Which brings us to the second part of the matter: the personal issues.
And this is where it gets really messy.
Aspen’s mayor and council are under intense, often unreasonable ” often flat-out-unfair ” pressure. They are wrestling with difficult issues ” painful issues ” with a whole lot of people (and a whole lot of money) looking over their shoulders, ready to pounce.
They are, to a man, honest, decent, high-minded, public-spirited people, trying their level best to do what is right for this community.
Frankly, if you don’t believe that, the hell with you.
But sometimes things get out of hand. This was one of those times.
The explosion of nastiness that ensued when Marilyn Marks brought a TV crew into council chambers was not about Marilyn Marks bringing a TV crew into council chambers.
It was about the unrelenting and often outrageous attacks on the council over the Burlingame screw-up ” a screw-up that mostly occurred years ago, under a different administration.
It was about people who are even now hustling to spin up a political campaign to throw council members out of office next year.
It was ” most unfortunately ” about nasty, underhanded attacks on Mick Ireland years ago, by other people, for other reasons.
We have all had the embarrassing experience of blowing up at someone over some trivial incident ” not because of that trivial incident, but because of one (or a hundred) other nontrivial incidents that came before it.
There’s even a cliche for it: the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Marilyn Marks may (and I say “may,” because I really don’t know) have been poking at various council sore spots for quite some time.
And this camera crew was one poke too many.
That said, the explosion of nastiness by the mayor and some council members was absolutely and entirely inappropriate, unacceptable and, frankly, flat-out stupid.
As public servants, they have to treat their constituents properly. Period.
And, as politicians, if they lose their collective temper at a political opponent, when that opponent is acting in a reasonable manner, they’ve just handed that opponent a major political victory.
It might be unfair, and it might be entirely contrary to human nature, but one of the responsibilities of public officials is to shut up and suck it up when residents poke them.
And if they do lose it, it cannot be from one last “straw that broke the camel’s back.” It has to be when the Mack truck runs the damn camel over.
They have the hard-won privilege of power. This is part of the price they must pay.