I'm not saying they're all bad, but from my experiences, the so-called power with which they've suddenly been imbued, prevents them from recognizing the true weightiness and purpose of their positions. They forget that they need to maintain the trust of those who elected them, while earning the trust of those who had not.
When such officials misbehave I’m no longer surprised. After all, many of us have had plenty of practice being disappointed by individuals elected to positions they are ill-equipped to fill.
Not being surprised however, does not mean being apathetic – when our elected officials forget that they have been charged with offices of duty and trust, I believe they ought to be reminded.
Which brings me to Mr. Lucas Frerichs, Davis city council member.
I haven’t had too many dealings with this individual, not since 2012 when I turned to the city for help with noisy chickens. I’ll spare you the details other than to say that here we are in 2019, our issue unresolved. Had I been aware that Mr. Frerichs was the venerable “Tour de Cluck” committee official I would have known better than to expect his assistance. A handful of fruitless emails taught me that.
It is such emails, fruitless or not, that I’d like to take a moment to consider; missives sent by Davis residents regarding what I can only imagine are various concerns, grievances and requests. I can only imagine because they’re none of my business – whatever their content or degree of frustration, they deserve to be handled professionally and respectfully by those to whom they are entrusted.
However, when school board member Cindy Pickett chose social media to complain about a neighbor who called police regarding a barbecue she was holding, Mr. Frerichs responded:
Was he as quick in his rush to judgment as his fellow Facebookers, condemning the neighbor and supporting a “friend” who only gave her audience a scant account of events? Let’s be realistic, what we read on social media is merely the version presented to us, and there are always two sides to a story. Those of us who are discerning enough know this. Worse yet, was he suggesting that those emails he receives in the capacity of an official are trivial or unwarranted? As illegitimate as he was suggesting the neighbor’s complaint was?
I reacted to Frerichs the way I had not too long ago, when a colleague chose to ridicule a student, venting on social media and receiving a flurry of support from so-called Facebook “friends” who jumped on the bashing bandwagon. Then too, I questioned the appropriateness of the venue, the lack of professionalism. The colleague swiftly “unfriended” me, the modern-day version of slamming a door by people who only want Yes-men reacting to their posts. By the way, turns out Pickett (another elected official), handles disagreement in similar fashion, removing me posthaste).
Risking my social media fate once more I dared to ask Frerichs what he does to help these residents whose complaints he was insinuating were outlandish.
“Karen - Would you like me to share your emails? They are public record.”
I sat back in my chair and stared at the screen for a moment.
Had a city council member just threatened to expose my correspondence, public record or not?
To ensure that it wasn’t just me reading it that way, I asked nine different people from varying backgrounds, ranging in ages from 22 to 75, all of whom recognized the response as just that, a threat. Unfortunately, but not surprising, fellow councilmember Dan Carson whose “instinct is to shy away from judging colleagues,” added that, “on busy days” when he tries to “answer as much email correspondence as” he can, “in a very limited time” he “may sometimes come off a bit more abrupt” than intended.
Perhaps on busy workdays one may not notice as they randomly threaten constituents. Yet Frerichs was on social media scrolling through posts on a Sunday afternoon, with apparently plenty of time on his hands.
Council member Will Arnold was quick to excuse his colleague as well by blaming some of the “rhetoric” received “on a daily basis from members of the public. Some are respectful. Some are not. Some are harassing, bigoted, and threatening. We are constantly subjected to people’s worst rhetorical impulses.”
As sympathetic as I may be, dealing with the public regardless of its “impulses” is part of the job you signed up for, and remaining professional is what sets apart those who are fit for such positions from those who are not. Threatening to expose residents’ emails as a way to shut them up when you don’t like what they’ve got to say, is giving in to those same “worst… impulses” you just described.
Mayor Brett Lee agreed, “…unless we are compelled or there are special circumstances we should treat our communications with constituents as between them and us and not share them with the greater public.”
Yet Frerichs couldn’t even get the apology right. He was sorry that I “believe” I was threatened. He was sorry that I was “feeling” threatened. It was in no way, shape or form an apology for actually threatening. It was the most unapologetic apology he could have mustered, reiterating that, “All emails we receive are public records…subject to being released,” proving once again that he had missed the point entirely.
In the large scheme of things, the cliquish behavior of small town council members doesn’t amount to a hill of beans as far as I’m concerned. But since this small town matters to so many people, as do their various concerns, I wonder how many will risk giving them voice once they know that they may be used in retaliation as social media fodder. Perhaps we should all keep this in mind next time elections come around.
Karen Levy is a lecturer at Sacramento State University and the author of My Father’s Gardens, 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee.