Thursday, June 18, 2009

WSJ Creates a Monster

I have a beef with Dean Mosiman from the State Journal. I'm not alone in this, either, as I'm pretty sure most of the city government has the same beef this week. It's the kind of beef you would have if there was a grease fire burning in your kitchen, and someone came along and helpfully poured five gallons of gasoline on it.

The Madison City Council has its share of talkers, and they speak with varying degrees of eloquence, tact and relevance to the subject at hand. But when one of our fair city's leaders is recognized by the mayor to speak during a meeting, there's no reaction as universal among the rest of the alders as when Alder Thuy Pham-Remmele takes the floor.

Typically, they know they're in for a roller-coaster ride of dead-end logic, inane questions, incoherent invective and split-second mood swings when Pham-Remmele takes the floor. While I typically respect a leader with spunk, which Pham-Remmele has in spades, her wildly unpredictable behavior in meetings evokes memories of second-grade report cards -- the phrase "does not play well with others" fails to do her spiteful demeanor justice.

If someone had been keeping a tally of minutes "wasted" on the council floor so far in this new term, Pham-Remmele would have lapped the rest of her colleagues combined, twice over.

So when I saw Dean Mosiman's article in the State Journal Monday, entitled "Ald. Pham-Remmele Speaks Her Mind, No Matter the Cost," I had a hunch he had doomed those of us who attend city council to some fresh horror at Tuesday night's meeting. If I had to guess, I would say Mosiman feels no guilt for doing this, as he wasn't stuck in attendance at the meeting himself.

But the danse macabre we witnessed outpaced even my own expectations. It's painfully indicative of a wildly out-of-control martyr-in-training with serious and dangerous delusions of grandeur.

Her self-image as a folk-hero of the southwest side reinforced by Mosiman's article, and riding high on a wave of fluff publicity-induced pride, Pham-Remmele proceeded to take the council floor and unrelentingly wield her alder's privilege like an ice pick, ramming it deep into the ears and eye sockets of everyone in the room.

During the questions segment of a motion to build a relatively non-controversial 700-foot segment of bike path across a green space in her district, Pham-Remmele unyieldingly held onto the chair's recognition for more than 60 jaw-dropping minutes. A one-woman circus, she first interrogated several of the registered speakers on the proposal, with all the gusto of a lawyer cross-examining witnesses in a high-profile murder case.

I'm not exaggerating here. For a blow-by-blow running narrative of the exchange, you can see citizen-blogger-extraordinaire and former Alder Brenda Konkel's post on the meeting.

Next, Pham-Remmele turned her new-found expertise as grand inquisitor on the city's staff, and the city council's chambers gradually devolved into chaos. As Pham-Remmele repeatedly pitched inane or unrelated questions at the city's legal, engineering and parks experts, it became clear she was trying to make a point of some kind, though I'm not sure she even knew what she was driving at.

If the point was supposed to be that she was doing her due-diligence as alder, as portrayed in Mosiman's story, her attempt utterly backfired. Asking city staff to repeatedly explain to her how restrictive land covenants work, or precedents of alder privilege, or who she should address with questions about the project only served to prove she either had not done her homework with regards to the proposal, or else is completely unable to grasp the finer details of her job.

I certainly wasn't able to penetrate the murky depths of her motivation, and neither were the other 18 members of the council in attendance. It almost seemed Pham-Remmele was staging some kind of unfeasible filibuster. At any rate, several other city leaders agreed with me the outrageous grandstanding was both unwarranted over such a petty project and out-of-character for someone who famously told other alders to "stop hogging the microphone" during last year's budget proceedings.

Several of her neighbors on the council floor excused themselves from their seats so their reactions to her tirade would not be seen by the city channel's cameras.

In small doses, Pham-Remmele's eccentricities can be pretty amusing as she careens perilously along the line that divides logic from borderline schizophrenia, bouncing from topical rebuttals to obtuse observances and back again. Lines from Tuesday night's rambling coup comparing the plight of residents in her district to that of Native Americans rank right up there with her infamous, incoherent tirade against Madison's certification as a bicycle-friendly community, captured in infamy on Youtube for all to see.

But after 45 minutes of "The Thuy Show," the other alders started getting restless. Again, I'm not exaggerating here when I say there was an active effort among the city's leadership to lure as many alders as possible into the hallway in an attempt to break quorum and temporarily shut the meeting down.

When freshman Alder Steve "the Gunslinger" King moved to call the question (close discussion and vote immediately) on the issue, it was a testament to either the principles or the masochism in the room that the motion failed, albeit barely, after city staff explained to Pham-Remmele what exactly it means to call the question. With the floor still open, the city council was in fact treated to an encore presentation from Pham-Remmele, as she monopolized their time for another ten minutes to urge them to vote against the proposal.

The motion passed, 18-1.

So thank you, Dean Mosiman and the Wisconsin State Journal, for an evening of entertainment on par with watching a quartet of yowling, rabid west-side coyotes disembowel a herd of vocal cats. Whether Thuy Pham-Remmele's charade will be enough to undermine every bit of positive perception you tried to build for her is yet to be seen, but rest assured this is not the last time she will prove her ineffectiveness as a city leader in full view of the public.


Kristin said...

Here's the thing -- I don't think it's wrong to ask questions about things like restrictive land covenants on the council floor, particularly when members of the public who may not know about these things are present and the explanation could help them come to terms with things (assuming these issues were not brought up in earlier meetings, which they may well have been). I think the problem on Tuesday was more about asking the same question again and again, in different ways (perhaps hoping to get a different answer), so that a five-minute segment took more than 45 minutes.

There were certainly some questions that were less relevant, such as asking about alder privilege or the specifics of that petition, but I personally liked learning about the restrictive land covenants, at least for the first few minutes. I realize I may be in the minority, however.

Nick Heynen said...

It worked out great for me. Gave me a chance to do some interviewing for the item I was actually writing a story about. In the press room I could hear her voice going on and I thought "thank you!"

Nick Heynen said...

Also, in defense of my coworker Dean, he didn't make her do any of that, and you know it. :)

MattRock said...

It is of course not wrong to ask questions of clarification in the middle of a meeting, but there is a level of abuse of rules of order here. A meeting is not the venue to "catch up" on a topic. Agendas are created for a reason, and if you are participant to a meeting of any sort, you should read your agendas. If you see something on the agenda which is relevant to you, do your homework for goodness sake and be prepared to discuss the topic, not catch up.
If for some reason something is still not clear during a meeting, move to table the topic in order to gain better understanding off-line.
Meetings take up a lot of cumulative time when you add the time of all the participants at hand together. In a corporate environment, people would be fired for such tactics.
It's like calling into a radio show; Don't waste the precious air-time with niceties like the weather and greetings. Have your statements ready and say what you have to say. Speaking to the point in your comments only allows for more discourse on the subject at hand.

MichaelBasford said...

Excellent post. You'd have to be freaking Renoir to paint a better picture than this.

Kristin said...

Re: mattrock

That's the point that I was missing in my post -- there is a difference between raising a few questions to illustrate a point to the public or other alders about a situation, and then there is using the evening to catch up on a subject, and it's clear which one happened Tuesday night.

I guess I just wanted to say that not all questions she raised were bad questions, but most council members would ask them ahead of time, and if need be, bring them up in public to make a deliberate point.

Anonymous said...

Should I be surprised a liberal Madison "journalist" is angry that questions are raised by a non-liberal member of the Council? You're kidding yourself if Konkel didn't get the same reactions during her tirades and hissy fit Q&A sessions.

Your entire argument is a thinly-veiled political attack. Act more like Kristin at the Cap Times who is able to balance politics and analysis before people start caring about you.

In the mean time, I'll be watching to see if your liberal bias continues spewing into your professional work.

MichaelBasford said...

"In the mean time, I'll be watching to see if your liberal bias continues spewing into your professional work."


Anonymous said...

Uh oh Anon, better call official Conservative-Mobile:

Dustin Christopher said...

ROFL @ Anonymous... There are plenty of times I've rolled my eyes at Brenda Konkel and almost every other member of the council as well. Please, don't bore me with the "biased liberal media" cliche. I like to think there are issues like Tuesday night's meeting that transcend the simple-minded left versus right approach to politics. This one falls to the great age-old "common sense versus lunacy" debate. I think if you asked Judy Compton or Michael Schumacher of any of Pham-Remmele's "conservative" allies, they would agree she was out of line. I invite you to view video of the exchange yourself.

No. I dare you.

As to my own "bias," I admit there are more issues I lean to the left on than issues I lean to the right on. If it's too mindblowing to think of me as anything other than "conservative" or "liberal," feel free to call me a "liberal."

But as a professional I acknowledge my own beliefs, inasmuch as it enables me to note my own shortcomings of perspective and compensate for them in my work. I'm proud of the work I do as a reporter, and I invite you to be as critical as you'd care to be.

I'll try not to spew any "liberal bias" on you.

Now go back to watching O'Reilly. He won't say anything to upset you.

Nick - that's hilarious, except it still leaves ME wanting an hour of my life back.

Jason Fischer said...

Here is another profile on Ald. Pham-Remmele from a few years back when the Cap Times published a daily print edition.

It is interesting that the same character traits and personality styles highlighted in that piece are the same ones that were highlighted by the WSJ. Very little -- if anything -- has changed.

That's all I got. Everything else has been addressed already.

I really need to stop by and watch a City Council meeting in-person sometime soon. The city channel doesn't do justice to all the fun. Man... who would've thought I'd miss sitting in the back row of the chambers every other Tuesday.