Recently, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at Bellingham City Club about his time working under two presidents. One statement that was disappointing to hear, although not surprising, was Mr. Gates' description of the tactics routinely used by politicians representing us in our nation's capital. "Rude and insulting, belittling, bullying, and all too often highly personal attacks by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior as they postured and acted as judge, jury, and executioner," Gates commented regarding the current political climate.
Gone are the days when our leaders could disagree, often vigorously, debate an issue with passion, then shake hands and move forward toward a solution. Today, bullying has become the norm, not only in Washington, D.C., but also here, at home, in Washington State and in Whatcom County where, all too often, the attitude is, no one is allowed to disagree with "the majority" without paying consequences for that disagreement. Have an independent thought? You must be a card carrying "socialist progressive liberal" or a "Tea Party right winger," maybe both!
For example, look at the bullying tactics used recently by the Ferndale School District when one board member didn't "go along to get along." In response to comments made by the board member on KGMI radio, district representatives made a point-by-point analysis of the interview, then subjected the board member to a lengthy schoolmarmish scolding at a subsequent meeting.
In case you missed it, the Ferndale School District recently asked the voters to approve a $125 million dollar capital bond for new infrastructure. A board member disagreed with the "plan" and spoke up, in public on the radio, after making clear he wasn' speaking on behalf of the school board but was speaking about his own opinions.
It is important to remember a school board member is an elected official, who runs on a platform in the same way county council or port commission candidates do. In most, perhaps all representative government, it is common practice for board, commission, or even council members to speak out about their feelings on an issue when they disagree with the rest of their peers. Public discourse, during and outside of meetings is how one is able to learn from the citizens an elected official represents.
Apparently, the Ferndale School Board feels it can, and should, impose more stringent standards than are required of other public bodies. When board member Hugh Foulke dared to speak out in public the Ferndale board and administration went on attack. A lengthy 4,300-word document was created to dissect and criticize the relatively normal actions of the elected board member, including attacks on his personal opinions completely unrelated to the Ferndale school district.
The tone of the paper is condescending, vindictive, angry and even petty for all that it is written in an almost childish style. The document, created by the administration and rest of the board, puts forward the bizarre notion that when board members speak outside of meetings, the public is somehow harmed by the speaking out; "Your comments during this radio broadcast seemed to preclude the public's opportunity to express their opinions."
Apparently, according to the district, Hugh is never supposed to speak out in public at all. Highlighted in bright red, no less, the district says while avowing the chastisement has, "...nothing to do with..." Hugh's dissenting opinion, is clear that dissent is to be reserved only for the board's meetings.
As a result of his sins Hugh not only had to read the missive from the district but sit through more than an hour's reiteration of the whole paper in another meeting.
However, the board is gracious and forgiving. If Hugh bows to the bullies, the school district promised, "We will provide you with some written information again so that in the future you are better equipped to articulate the district's vision."
Bullying does work. Hugh was hesitant to discuss this with me so I obtained the paper and most information elsewhere.
Schools run anti-bullying efforts on a regular basis. Perhaps it's time we sent our elected representatives, from Congress down to school district bureaucrats, to one or two of those classes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clayton Petree of Bellingham is a freelance journalist and community consultant, writing on topics from business and grant applications to biomass cogeneration and small-scale farming. The Bellingham Herald invited him to provide occasional opinion columns after his unsuccessful bid for City Council in 2013. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.