“Enforcing Robert’s Rules will not in any way suppress ideas. . . . The purpose of Robert’s Rules is to get things done in a meeting”

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Bill Scheirer is an economist who grew up in Bethlehem, spent 40 years in DC, and retired here in 2003. He is a life member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and was on the Mayor’s Task Force for the City of Bethlehem Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning Map.


Just as it takes three things to go wrong simultaneously for an airliner to crash, it takes only two things to go wrong for a lack of decorum and civility at the city council: a disruptive councilperson and a “soft gavel.” Enforcing Robert’s Rules will not in any way suppress ideas, because any actionable idea can be expressed without insulting another person or impugning their motives. The purpose of Robert’s Rules is to get things done in a meeting. In order to do so, the Rules eliminate time-consuming arguments about process, and eliminate the inflammatory comments described above, which can lead to responses that are sometimes inflammatory in themselves, and to a meeting that can end up, in the extreme, in a fist fight, which happened once in a Lehigh Valley Township. There is a reason why Robert’s Rules are followed in almost every deliberative body in the United States of America and have lasted for well over 100 years. This reason is to actually get things done in a meeting. After the meeting, you can shift to the First Amendment.


President Waldron indicates he hasn’t “been deaf to the criticisms of my style” and that maybe he will be “a bit more” aggressive

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At City Council last night, President Waldron once again responds to concerns about his soft-gavel style:

  • I take this position seriously; I’m honored to serve for another term.
  • I stand by my legacy in the work that I did in my role over the last two years and hope to build on that.
  • I will continue to encourage as much public comment as possible as well as healthy debate among members of council.
  • I have brought in the live-streaming in an effort to get more people engaged.
  • I have made attempts to interact a bit more with the speakers in a way . . . to try to answer some questions whenever it is appropriate and try to have a small dialog.
  • I haven’t been deaf to the criticisms of my style of allowing a very long leash and using a soft gavel, and I’ll continue to try to reflect on that in ways to help guide the conversation in a more positive and productive way.
  • I’m serious in my commitment to listening to my members of Council and hearing their feedback on my management of the meetings.
  • I would say that generally most of the criticisms directed at me for not managing a specific member of Council and not silencing them or gaveling them down.
  • Which I think is a fair criticism; however, I have made attempts to guide that conversation to be a bit more productive, and those attempts have not been successful.
  • Ultimately I think if there’s a single bad actor, that doesn’t reflect negatively upon Council.
  • I think that reflects upon that individual, and those comments are representative of that certain person, not of the entire Council.
  • I will, however, try to continue and maybe a bit more aggressively help try to push that conversation to a productive one.
  • It’s my hope that everybody can continue to work together, we have a generally good working relationship among Council and the administration, and I hope that we can continue that over the next two years.
  • I think the City is in great shape, and a lot of that has to do with these relationships.
  • I thank members of Council and the public for their support.
  • I am very open to having a dialog and a conversation about how we can continue to improve things here at City Council meetings as well as in the City as a whole.

City Council meeting tonight!

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Our next City Council meeting — the “face” of Bethlehem City government — occurs tonight Tuesday, January 21, Town Hall, at 7PM.

These meetings are video-recorded and can be viewed LIVE or later at your convenience on the City’s website after the meeting at https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Calendar.

The YouTube channel for live or archive viewing is “City of Bethlehem Council.”

Find the Council agenda and documents here: https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/Calendar/Meetings/2020/City-Council-Meeting/51

Tonight there’s a resolution to gather info for a short-term lodging ordinance and a request for the Public Safety committee to look into the recent marijuana ordinance among other things.

And, as always, as long as he has flutter in his wings, Gadfly urges attending City Council live or virtually — one way or the other.

Participate. Be informed.

“The future of this City comes down to our ability to work together and establish relationships”

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“These decisions [president, vice president] are much, much less important than the overall relationship between the members of Council, the members of Council and the public, and the members of Council and the administration, and the potential for great things to happen in this room comes down to our ability to work together.”
Councilman Reynolds, January 6, 2020

Council meeting tonight. Gadfly was disappointed in Council last time. As were some of you. Now time to listen to the words of the “elder statesman.”

A modest proposal: requiring training in Roberts’ Rules of Order

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“When a person becomes either a Council member or president of Council,
are there any guidelines to their being mentored or coached to their learning
the Roberts’ Rules of Order?”

Peg Church, January 6, 2020

Fair question from a reasonable resident.

And the answer is “No.”

Following Church’s lead, Gadfly would like to make a modest proposal:

that every Council member be required to attend a training seminar in Roberts’ Rules of Order every year.

  • this new requirement could be coupled with the requirement of an annual ethics seminar
  • this requirement would be for all council members, not just the officers
  • though the Solicitor is usually thought of as the expert on Roberts’ Rules and the arbiter of Roberts’ Rules, knowledge of the rules empowers each council person
  • of special emphasis in such a seminar would be the deportment of all members of a meeting
  • such a seminar could usefully include examples of proper and improper meeting behavior
  • one can even imagine members of the public interested in such a seminar

to be continued . . .

Gadfly as soft-gaveler

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President Waldron values freedom of speech, wants open discussion, and manages with a soft gavel.

And he’s taken some heat, with some justification, perhaps.

Gadfly empathizes with, sympathizes with President Waldron.

He ran a classroom that way for fifty years, a department that way for ten years, and tries to run this blog that way now.

Ruling with a hard gavel is much easier.

But not as productive, not as rewarding if building community is part of your goal.

Gadfly has already said a few posts back that he did not personally see President Waldron’s managerial style/philosophy as a factor so grave as to disqualify him from the presidency.

He knows from long experience that you do not get through the Shoals of Soft-Gavelment without some bruises, and sometimes serious bruises.

(Ha! If Gadfly wanted a reason for disqualification, it would be that climactic tie-breaking vote after hours and hours of testimony in one of the agonizing chapters of the 2 W. Market saga — a vote given WITHOUT REASON. Aiiii, Mr. President, Gadfly will never forget the feeling of that knife in the heart!)

So Gadfly would shift your focus on the reason for a breakdown in decorum on Council from President Waldron to Councilman Callahan.

In Gadfly’s relatively brief tenure, Councilman Callahan has referred to some residents as CAVE people (Citizens against Virtually Everything), publicly revealed a fifteen-year past indiscretion of another resident, mansplain’d a councilwoman, continually implied backstage maneuvering, suggested unethical behavior by a councilman, suggested unethical behavior by a City administrator, suggested unprofessional behavior by the Mayor, engaged in rude interactions with at least three of the councilpeople, exclaimed derogatorily that he “knew the game” of a councilman, and explained that Council actions against him were conspiratorially orchestrated.

That’s a manload of decorum-busting to handle.

Surely some of the responsibility for the breakdown in decorum and shadowing of the City image that we’ve recently seen some residents forcefully complain about must be attributed to Councilman Callahan.

Gadfly would not assign the whole reason for the breakdown in decorum on the Council and resultant darkening of the City reputation to the soft-gavel management style of President Waldron.

Not by a long-shot.

Gadfly’s been there in his shoes, been there behind his gavel.

The humane impulse of the Soft-Gaveler is to educate, to transform, to absorb the disruptive force. Not to silence or destroy it.

And sometimes it doesn’t work.

But sometimes it does. Gadfly knows from experience.

English Department

The happy, cohesive Lehigh University English Department ca. 1990
chaired by soft-gloved Gallagher

And as far as the City’s image or reputation goes, Gadfly feels pretty good how the year ended in that respect.

Councilman Callahan’s loss of the Parking Authority liaison assignment was, in effect, an act of censure by Council, an act that in Gadfly’s mind moved toward improving the City’s image and reputation.

An act cousin to the hard-gloved gavel those vocal residents have sought.

Though, since another councilman introduced the motion, whether President Waldron had an active role in that move, he doesn’t know.

to be continued . . .

Take-aways from President Waldron’s responses to criticism about his gavel philosophy

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Waldron applause lines:

Gadfly finds a lot to applaud. For Gadfly, President Waldron frames his gavel theory in precisely the right terms. He is open to participation, acknowledges different points of view, believes in dialog, doesn’t believe in censoring.

“I think that people should have the ability to speak their mind as long as they are doing it in a respectful way, and I think that disagreement is good because it shows different points of view and perspectives.”

“we should be able to have a positive conversation in which we respectfully disagree with each other.”

“I think that a healthy dialog starts with the ability to express yourself, and if you don’t like what someone else is saying, I don’t think censoring their speech is the right thing. I think topping it with better speech, more accurate, or a different point of view is a fine thing to do.”

“I think everyone has a right to be heard, and I think they have a right to speak, from members of the public to members of Council. . . . I don’t think silencing people’s thoughts and opinions is a productive way to continue a conversation.”

“I don’t think limiting ideas that you are not in agreement with or unpopular is not the way to a healthy dialog. I think that you combat unpopular ideas with better ideas.”

“More conversation is always a good thing, whether you agree with those ideas or not, I think knowing what someone else thinks and having the ability to understand and allowing them to articulate is a positive thing whether you like those ideas or you think they are terrible. I think everybody should have an opportunity to be heard.”

” . . . to see how we can allow for an even more productive dialog that would make people feel as included as possible, open up City Hall to as many residents as we can get here, and to hear their input as well.”

Applying the theory:

While applauding President Waldron’s gavel-theory, Gadfly feels that, early on anyway, he fell far short in practice, in the application of that theory — and is certainly pollyannish in his assessment of what had happened on the ground. For instance, President Waldron apparently did not see what was plainly visible to the majority of us in the cheap seats in last year’s ragged personal interaction between two Council members. And Gadfly believes he can say with certainty that President Waldron totally misread the outcome of the interaction with Mr. Antalics he references.

“I went back and did some research on some of the minutes and some of the things that were said by members of council and by members of the public, and I just don’t see a lot there as far as violation of Robert’s Rules. Personal attacks, I think, is a term getting thrown around for political reasons. I think there’s a healthy debate, and I think there’s respect for each another on Council. We may not agree with each other, and that’s fine, and that comes down to the vote some times, and I like to think that we can move forward professionally. But I think there is a decorum here, and I don’t think that there has been a lack of professionalism.”

“if you don’t like what someone else is saying, I don’t think censoring their speech is the right thing. I think topping it with better speech, more accurate, or a different point of view is a fine thing to do, just like Mr. Antalics and I did this evening.”

Homage to the First Amendment:

Gadfly thinks that President Waldron’s invocation of the First Amendment as the basic engine of his gavel theory/philosophy creates problems, since, in Gadfly’s mind, he seems to use it to justify all kinds of speech in any kind of way. Gadfly wished President Waldron hadn’t gone “there” at all. Gadfly feels the sentiment in the room is that, yes, Roberts’ Rules should be followed, even if applied a bit flexibly, and especially in terms of decorum. Lack of “decorum” seems more the problem than unpopular ideas, and Roberts’ Rules speaks to that. At first, President Waldron seems to confuse the issues of content and conduct.

“I think that the First Amendment is strong and well in this room, and I have great respect for it to the point that I respect it over Robert’s Rules.”

“you might think that we should follow Robert’s Rules to the ‘T,’ but my view is . . . ”

“I give great respect to Robert’s Rules, but I think the First Amendment . . . will trump Robert’s Rules any day of the week. So if you want to point to Robert’s Rules and say these are the rules we are supposed to be following, I do respect those, however . . . ”

“the First Amendment is wide-ranging and it supersedes Roberts’ Rules of Order.”

Evolution of practice:

That said, President Waldron evolved over the year, later admitting Roberts’ Rules were violated, recognizing problems with decorum more, describing those problems vividly, calling for improvement, and even seeming to find some improvement.

“I don’t think silencing people’s thoughts and opinions is a productive way to continue a conversation. With that being said, I do think there should be a level of decorum and respect for each other in the room. And I think at times at the last Council meeting that was not there. I did not get any feedback publicly that that was a positive conversation. In fact, many people reached out to me that I saw and said that it was cringe-worthy and it was embarrassing. I think the tone of that conversation wasn’t helpful, and it’s my opinion that I think we can do better and we must do better when we get in to the dangerous territory of accusing people of things on Council.”

“Whether it’s warranted that people think the rules are being violated — Roberts’ Rules — which I think they are — I’m going to enforce them pretty liberally because I think the conversation should be open and fair.”

“I hear a lot different kind of tone than I did last week, Mr. Callahan, and I appreciate that you were reflective on that.”

“I think moving forward taking a little time to consider how our words are affecting other people in the room, it’s going to be beneficial.”

Involvement of Council colleagues:

President Waldron is open (and will continue to be) to “counseling” and suggestions for change from his colleagues, but so far, contrary to some strong voices among the residents, the message is that he’s doing a “fine job.”

“I’m going to take remarks from members of Council if they want to give a little course correction and think that I should enforce the rules a little differently. I’ll listen to the majority of Council if they have a strong opinion that the rules should be enforced differently. Although I’m currently president of Council, I would welcome feedback from members of Council if they think I should have a different approach. And I’ll try to balance those in the future as we continue these conversations under new business.”

“I did reach out to members of Council, and I did speak to everyone about their views. . . . During my conversations with everybody on Council, I didn’t receive any negative feedback about my style or my management of running the meetings, which I took to heart, and I took that advice to mean that I was doing a fine job running the meetings.”

“I have asked members of Council publicly and privately whether they did have any feedback for me in the management of the meetings, and I have received a little bit of feedback but nothing to the point where anybody felt that I should take a different approach to the way that I manage and I try to keep order in the room. It is an imperfect science. It is an imperfect science, and it is a difficult balancing act from moment to moment, but I am willing to continue those conversations with members of Council if I am elected to serve as president to see how we can allow for an even more productive dialog.”


What did you see in President Waldron’s “defense” of his soft-gavel style?

to be continued . . .