Several weeks ago, newly elected village trustee, Ram Bhatia called and asked me to meet him for a cup of coffee. He said he wanted to know more about me. It was a pleasant surprise and I agreed to meet later that day.
During our conversation, Ram wanted to know why the village board was so divided? What made them so adversarial towards each other? I told him the divisiveness between trustee factions went back many years. It was not a new phenomenon.
I told Ram, in my experience, there are always alliances and factions between members of even non-partisan governmental bodies. This is true on the common council in Racine. It is true on the school board too. Sometimes members cross over and join up with the “other side” on issues, but politics is a team sport - like it or not - and Ram is now a politician.
Ram told me he was not on a team. He considered himself to be an independent thinker. He said his decision to join up with the other candidates running for trustee seats was a strategy, not an alliance. Just because he hosted fundraisers with Clausen, Eastman and Leonard, sent out mailings with his name along with theirs and blanketed the village with team “End the Stalemate” yard signs - didn’t mean he was going to vote the way they did.
I said the only way to know if he was telling the truth was to see how he voted.
The conversation shifted to me. Ram said that he attended many village meetings where I spoke during public comments. He was very interested in my comments about the hate website “Let’s Make a Better Mt. Pleasant” which I believe is written by Village President, Dave DeGroot - and has been renewed until 2020 according to the domain host.
I suspect Ram may have thought I was embarrassing myself.
Ram asked if I was so sure the website is written by DeGroot, why I didn’t do something about it? I explained the complaints to the domain host, the Sheriff’s investigation, the conversations with the District Attorney and other elected officials - local and state - who also had conversations with DeGroot about his late night activities.
I told Ram, my strategy to publicly read the childish and abusive things DeGroot wrote about me during public comments in public meetings has been the only thing which has ever paused his behavior.
Ram seemed to think my strategy was bad for the village’s reputation. I think he was talking to the wrong party.
Having seen me also address the board of trustees on a range of policy issues, Ram wondered what I wanted out of my activities? To him, I appeared so... he couldn’t out his finger on the word he wanted to say. So I offered up the word “angry.” Yes, he said. Why was I so angry?
I spoke about how other local municipalities and elected officials I knew didn’t act the way they did in Mt. Pleasant. In my opinion, some trustees in the village were more interested in hiring and granting favors to their friends than being accountable to residents. I said several trustees don’t understand public policy and treat village hall like a clubhouse instead of a publicly funded municipality.
Ram listened politely and said he had a meeting to go to which turned out to be a semi-private commencement of construction ceremony - which (ironically) the village improperly noticed.
Ram left giving me one last thought: we must work together and put aside personal agendas and prejudice.
I thought about our conversation. A short while later, he gave a trustee report in which he lobbied for more positivity during public comments at the last board meeting. Ram is very big on being positive.
His first idea was having the board address certain issues stemming from public comments at the following board meeting. Most ideas and feedback provided during public comment just disappear because there is no discussion. Creating a way to follow-up is a step in the right direction.
Ram’s second idea went back to the positivity theme. Because of Foxconn, people are watching the village. He talked about village accountability and holding their feet to the fire - but with less negative and personal attacks.
Other people told me they felt like Ram was saying - yes, call us out - but be nicer. It wasn’t well received.
Ram deserves credit for his comments. This was the only time I have witnessed any trustee associated with that “team” who was willing to even absorb public comments and follow up. Generally, they look like they want to just get it over with as quickly as possible.
However, Ram is wrong about something important.
When people respond to feedback or criticism by telling you they don’t like the manner you have presented the feedback - they are basically saying they don’t want to listen to you without saying those precise words. Worse, they are blaming you for your tone, your anger, your personal agenda - whatever - to escape their own responsibility and resistance to acting.
They are avoiding having a discussion on the merits of what is being said - by having a discussion about how it was said. It’s a manipulation and a cop-out.
Everything the Village Board does is personal to someone. Special assessments, eminent domain, ordinance violations, public safety - all effect people literally where they live. Telling people to put aside their “personal agendas” is a ludicrous suggestion which no one should buy.
When the village refuses to schedule meetings when the public can best attend, disallows residents to speak about agenda items or threatens them with arrest during public comments, or uses eminent domain to pressure people sell their homes - it rightly makes people angry. When that anger is expressed during meetings or online, Village Trustees should be less concerned about the tone of that discussion and more concerned about what they are doing to cause that anger and seek a remedy.
That’s their job.
We all know the world is watching Mt. Pleasant. I have zero interest in putting on a pleasant face or a happy show if trustees (and committee members) can’t or won’t take their responsibilities to the public seriously.
Mt. Pleasant isn’t a joke because residents are angry. Mt. Pleasant is a joke because because local officials don’t listen to residents, make stupid mistakes and behave like mini-tyrants.
People in power - like politicians, often think they have the clout to dictate the terms in which they will consider your feelings in return for their actions or consideration. They use phrases like “personal agenda” and “negativity” to distract us.
Anger is a perfectly reasonable reaction to feeling tricked or manipulated. Not being particularly pleasant has gotten residents more accountability and transparency in recent weeks than ever before. Don’t let Ram or anyone else tell you it isn’t productive - it is.
If Ram Bhatia and the other trustees are really interested in forging something positive on the board, they need only look to either side on the dais during board meetings instead of out in the audience and begin there.