Quiet, staid debate is not exactly a hallmark of Macon’s City Council.
With 15 spirited elected members representing the city’s five wards, arguments are inevitable. Sometimes they are purely policy related. In other cases, they turn personal.
But for whatever reason, the past couple of weeks have seen spot flares in tension — enough so that Council President Miriam Paris was going to make decorum a topic of discussion at a work session last week if more council members had shown up.
First, there was Councilman James Timley’s mini-tirade two weeks ago in which he declared half the room out of order while chairing an Ordinances and Resolutions Committee meeting. He was upset by people wondering why he had questions about the issue at hand that day.
“If you don’t like it, get the hell out,” he told his colleagues at the time.
More recently, there has been the e-mail war of words between council members Elaine Lucas and Erick Erickson. Their argument centered on a hotel/motel tax revenue split that Lucas’ husband, state Rep. David Lucas, had proposed for helping fund Georgia’s sports and music halls of fame in downtown Macon.
Ostensibly, the disagreement was about the most appropriate use for the money. But it quickly became mired in name-calling and accusations of dishonesty. Erickson made their lengthy and heated exchange public on his blog, Peach Pundit.
“Shame on Erick Erikkkson,” Lucas wrote in one e-mail, responding to Erickson’s claims that Rep. Lucas had implied the legislation was racially motivated. “He is spreading lies about David and expecting rational people to believe them. Please check to see who it is that told him about David’s alleged remarks and you will find out that he is a cowardly liar.”
Erickson, meanwhile, wrote back to his colleague and accused her of throwing “a ‘Poor Elaine’ pity party.”
“Love the triple K’s in my name,” he wrote. “I guess hanging out with high school children all day, you can’t help but act like a child yourself. You and your husband are both cut from the same cloth, having never been willing to get the chips off your shoulders — seeing racists everywhere except in your mirror.”
This was at least their second electronic confrontation. They tangled once before via e-mail over radio show personality Chris Krok’s invitation to a police banquet.
Paris said it’s difficult to draw broad conclusions about council decorum based solely on these latest incidents. For the most part, council members are agreeable in their disagreements, she said. At times, wider discussions about conduct are needed to keep everyone on track. She said her primary concern is how the council conducts itself as a whole before the public, particularly when it formally meets twice each month. What occurs outside of City Hall is sometimes beyond her reach.
“You can’t manage the personalities,” she said. “That’s very hard to do, and it may not be something you want to tackle. ... The main thing I would like to see is business being handled in an orderly way, one that maintains order and gets the job done.”
Erickson, for his part, said he’s happy to serve as a lightning rod.
It diverts the attention of political opponents, he said, while allowing others to quietly cut more favorable legislative deals. In the case of the halls of fame, he said, the e-mails served as a distraction that let other council members work behind the scenes to stall a resolution that supported Lucas’ position. There’s a difference, he said, in causing a disruption for strategic purposes and disrupting purely for the sake of disrupting. Sparks have flown because council members not used to having their positions disputed are now being challenged, Erickson said.
“I am really one of the few people who has ever pushed back,” he said.
Some of the more veteran council members said there is an underlying tension that goes back to the start of this term, when six new council members took office. They came on board feeling a mandate from voters to correct the behavior of the returning members and keep them in check, said Timley, who has served on the City Council since 1999.
“I think that’s where a lot of the grief has come from,” he said. But it’s unrealistic to expect, that when people are passionate about what they believe, arguments won’t grow heated. That’s the result of debate and hashing out the people’s business, Timley said, and it doesn’t really cross the line unless people are targeting or belittling each other.
“It’s just what happens in a democracy,” he said. “We’re not asking each other for a duel.”
Lucas said the power grab at the outset of the term, when the more experienced members were dumped from their committee chairmanships in an attempt to push aside the “old guard,” is exacerbated at times by personal conflicts and very strong philosophical differences.
“People don’t really take kindly to attempts to push them to the side when they are duly elected like everyone else,” she said.
Lucas, who is routinely taunted by Krok on his radio show and has said colleagues like Erickson have colluded with him in attacks against her, said there will always be conflict when there are attempts by some to keep others in their place. Lucas said she tries to treat others the way she would like to be treated, but she said she won’t take abuse from anyone. And nobody has a right to spread lies and distortions, she said.
“If someone dishes it out, with adults, you expect that people will defend themselves,” she said.
To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.