Yellers and screamers

A community council dispute calls into question the neighborhood governance model.

PRESIDENT ROGER PENCE arrived at the last meeting of the North Beacon Hill Community Council with a freshly drafted code of conduct and a newly appointed sergeant at arms to enforce it. It wasn't enough to stem the tide of anger threatening to destroy the council and the neighborhood political governance that goes with it.

For the second straight month, the group's regular meeting ended in a shouting match between supporters and opponents of Albert Kaufman and Frederica Merrell, two community council board members removed by their colleagues in a controversial October vote. This time, at least, the fireworks were more short-lived; Pence suddenly adjourned the meeting and walked out after a few exchanges, although the discussion continued in the hall outside the meeting room.

"I was hoping they would get this out of their system," Pence noted after the meeting. Although he's hopeful the dispute won't continue to the next community council meeting, he doesn't intend to back down to the supporters of Kaufman and Merrell. "We're not just going to walk away and leave the community affairs to the yellers and screamers."

At the heart of the dispute are several community issues, including the siting of the new Beacon Hill Library. One faction wants to locate the library on part of the former Beacon Hill Elementary School property, which has been used by El Centro de la Raza, a Hispanic community group, for the past 26 years. El Centro patrons and staff oppose the move. Kaufman and Merrell have supported El Centro in the siting issue; in return, a large El Centro contingent has attended recent community council meetings.

El Centro director Roberto Maestas says his organization's role in the dispute has been overstated. El Centro representatives often attend community council meetings, he notes, and he was specifically interested in hearing a scheduled presentation from city librarian Deborah Jacobs. He disputed a community newspaper report on an earlier council meeting that claimed a contingent from El Centro "shouted down board members." Maestas notes that many people at that earlier meeting—not just El Centro representatives—were angry with the treatment of Merrell and Kaufman and the secret meeting used to oust them. "It was pretty clear that [the council's action] was very harsh and actually violated their own bylaws," he says.

Although some of the issues Kaufman and Merrell have worked on—such as shutting down the incinerator at the Veterans Administration Hospital and expanding the public space at Jefferson Park—are supported by most in the community, Pence says he's simply tired of "doing damage control" for persons offended by their confrontational style. "I've talked to city department heads who have been called liars in meetings—you just don't do that," says Pence. "To be active in community issues, you need a certain amount of people skills."

Kaufman sees things differently, saying that the disagreements are as much about substance as style. He says that resentment in the community against El Centro has spurred the library siting debate, and he and Merrell have tried to reach out and form ties between the community and the organization. He also clashed with Pence and other board members when homeless persons set up a tent city on city-owned land adjacent to the Jefferson Park reservoir earlier this year. Kaufman says he and Merrell talked with the people there in order to report back to the community. "At this same time," he adds, "Roger was leading this charge to evict them as quickly as possible."

Merrell says she is being punished for taking unpopular stands: "I think it's too bad when a community cannot have strong advocates for different viewpoints."

THE DISPUTE CAME to a head in early October, when 12 members of the community council's 15-member board held an unscheduled meeting to consider the expulsion of Kaufman and Merrell (neither was invited). Although Pence claims he did not organize or attend the meeting, he did cast a ballot by phone. Ten members—exactly the two-thirds margin required by the group's bylaws—voted for expulsion. In response to complaints over the secret meeting, the board met again this month to repeat the vote. This time, Merrell's expulsion was upheld, but Kaufman's fell one vote short.

Pence says the vote was held because several board members were close to resigning over conflicts with Kaufman and Merrell. "People don't like to be insulted and held up for contempt just because of a difference of opinion," he says. "We've lost several people from our organization just because they don't want to deal with these people anymore."

The battle includes an odd racial dynamic, even though all the major players—Pence, Kaufman, and Merrell—are white. Kaufman says the community council is seen as an organization dominated by white, middle-class people in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood. Some also sense lingering resentment of El Centro behind the community interest in siting the library there—the former school was originally occupied in 1972 by activists pushing their demand for a Latino community center. The absurdity of the race question was highlighted in a recent meeting that included a mystifying exchange between a white Kaufman/Merrell supporter who read a quote from Frederick Douglass. Pence—who pronounced himself an "Asian by marriage"—responded with a speech about how the Asian culture stresses avoidance of open conflict.

To those who believe in the value of community councils, the refusal of the dispute to die down is discouraging, to say the least. "We've been having these kinds of meetings for about six months now, and it doesn't seem to be getting better," says Roger Valdez, vice president of the community council. He would like to see city officials intervene with some sort of mediation. Stan Lock, coordinator for the city's Greater Duwamish Community Service Center, says he's trying to get the King County Dispute Resolution Center to help negotiate a peace accord. Valdez says that if the community council can't start working together, it will become irrelevant. "We're going to have people continue to walk away from these problems," he says, "and the real loser is the neighborhood."

 
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