A New Vision for Maplewood
When Maplewood City Council Member Erik Hjelle declares,
“I'm a chump,” you've got to figure he knows what he's talking about.
A trio of newcomers now controls the Maplewood city council — Mayor Diana Longrie and council members Rebecca Cave and Erik Hjelle — and they have a new “vision” for Maplewood. Our former city manager, Richard Fursman, did not share that vision, according to Longrie, so he was quickly fired. The exact nature of the new vision guiding Maplewood, however, has been left as an exercise for the citizenry to decipher.
To uncover this new vision, we can turn to an investigative report
that the former city manager authorized. Cynics might say that this report led directly to the city manager's firing, but we can look for deeper meaning in its pages. As Hjelle defended himself against allegations of improperly using city resources in the 2005 election campaign for himself, Longrie, and Cave, he offered a surprisingly unguarded glimpse into his attitudes toward the city, ethics, the rule of law, and governance.
When his feet are held to the fire, what principles can we expect to guide a council member like Erik Hjelle? Here are a few that stood out to me, as I studied the report.1. La Ville, C'est Moi!
At the height of the French monarchy, King Louis XIV famously declared, “L'état, c'est moi” — “I am the state.” On a slightly more modest scale, Mr. Hjelle has applied this slogan to his work as a volunteer firefighter, declaring that the city's fire station is actually his. Despite the sign outside the building, Hjelle insisted to investigators, “No! It's not the city's fire station. It's my fire station. The City technically owns it, but it's my fire station and my fire truck.” That's why working on his campaign there did not, in his view, violate the city's rule against campaign activities in municipal buildings.
As a city councillor, Hjelle is now in a position to extend this theory far beyond his personal fire station. Watch for him soon to object to your children and pets tramping across “his lawn” in city parks. Perhaps he will decide to go swimming in “his” pool in your back yard, or enjoy a movie in “his” home theater inside your house. Yes, technically you own it, but it's his city now.2. Schrödinger's Ethics: It Can't Be Wrong if it's Secret
Hjelle defends the campaign activity on the basis that “no one knew,” and thus it did not violate City policy. “I don't think what I did was inappropriate because no one knew about it.” Armed with a daring hybrid of quantum mechanics and moral relativism, Hjelle has decreed that only if an outsider observes wrongdoing can it actually be wrong.
We've already seen one effect of this grand unified theory of city hall ethics: If you fire or chase away the tattle-tales, there will be no one to observe any wrongdoing, and thus no wrongdoing! Thus the new council's project of “cleaning up” city hall is well underway.
Carrying this vision forward, we can ultimately expect the elimination of the police department. This will have the twofold benefits of saving the city money and completely eliminating crime.3. Mulligans
You might wonder how a scofflaw can credibly enact rules for others, such as city ordinances, or enforce them. In his own words:
“I can do it because I did not intend to do anything wrong. I didn't do anything malicious or with the intent to deceive. If faced with that, I can be a lot more accommodating with people. I'm a chump. The first time I have to deal with something like that, I'm probably gonna give people the benefit of the doubt. To a certain degree, that's how I think the City should be addressing this issue.”
Hjelle offers us a pretty sweet deal: If we let him take a mulligan here, he'll be ready to look the other way when any of us overlook a pesky rule or two. Should you ever run afoul of city hall, don't forget to invoke the Chump Defense!4. Don't Sweat the Details
If you've ever watched Mr. Hjelle nod off in one of those late-running council meetings we enjoy under the new regime, you won't be surprised to learn that he's not big on details, even when they are his responsibility. In the end, Hjelle admitted, “Look, if I'm guilty of something, it's that I didn't sit down and read the rules after I filed for election.”
A brave willingness to go forth without first reading the manual, as it were, is good news for those of us interested in city politics who haven't read up on Robert's Rules of Order, the “open meeting law,” or what exactly “plan B form of government” means. Unfortunately, it is likely to mean more unbearably long council meetings for the indefinite future, if the rules have to be made up on the spot and no one can be expected to have prepared in advance.
Alternatively, the ruling bloc could choose one of their number to do all the homework, and the others could just vote the same way she does on everything.
While we can't say for certain, the lockstep voting of the new triumvirate on the council so far suggests that they share a common vision. Still, we citizens will need to examine the words and deeds of the others on the council, to see how and where they may diverge from the political philosophy Mr. Hjelle has articulated.