Episode 18

Rebecca and Obstructionism

 ARP member Harmony Guliscerian becomes city manager of Janesville, Wisconsin. Like all ARP candidates, she is a committed mediator who campaigns on process rather than policy, and she opens her bankbook to the public, promising not to take any money other than the city manager salary of $147,000.

Harmony is appointed by the Janesville City Council soon after ARP members are elected to five of the seven city council positions. As soon as she’s appointed, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan contacts City Councilman Studs Jacobsen. “Studs, you and I both know we can’t let Guliscerian and the ARP succeed. We have to humiliate her. I don’t care how you do it, but you have to make sure nothing good happens in Janesville until we get rid of her.”

 “No problem. Leave ARP to me. Despite their majority, they’ll get nothing out of this council.”

Meanwhile, ARP officials around the country have learned that the best place to start making changes is in education. Liberals and conservatives alike hate to see bad things happen to their schools. After all, schools are full of kids, and most people like kids. In addition, schools are a primary determinant of property values. And, it just happens that teachers in Janesville are threatening to go on strike, creating a crisis. 

Guliscerian follows the ARP playbook. She issues a call to the public, specifically inviting teachers, parents, students, building inspectors, the group fighting for lower property taxes, the superintendent of schools, other school board members, and all seven City Council members. Thousands of people show up at 8:30am for the start of the first meeting, which is held in Monterey Stadium. The meeting begins with 163 people on the speakers stack and, of course, anyone can raise their hand and get on the stack. It’s going to be a long day. Possibly a long week.

Guliscerian: Thank you all for being here. Your numbers show that this is an issue our community cares about, which is only natural because it involves both children and money. On your way in here, you signed a paper that we take as your promise to abide by our ground rules. You can express approval or disapproval, but please do not start chanting or disrupting or making it impossible to hear the speakers. And if I ask for quiet, please quiet down immediately. We will take a break at 10:30. We’ll stop for lunch around 12:30. We’ll start again at 2, break at 3:30 and go until 6. If necessary, we will come back tomorrow and the next day and the next until we have come to a conclusion we can all live with. Is this understood and acceptable? (approval)

In that case, let’s hear first from Pam Rogers, leader of the teachers’ union, the organization that has pressed for this meeting to address what it believes is an emergency in Janesville’s schools. Ms. Rogers, the floor is yours.

Ms. Rogers: I am here to beg for more money for public education. Teachers’ salaries have not gone up significantly since the late 1980s. We feel disrespected. Morale is low. Our buildings are in terrible condition. Janesville spends less per 1000 dollars per capita on education, less than any other city in Wisconsin. Now, we’re having to put police in our schools, and the police department wants the school board to pay for that. To keep Janesville growing and developing, we need first rate schools. And to have first rate schools, we need to spend more on everything, from teacher salaries to facility to books and equipment. (applause, sounds of approval)

G: Thank you, Ms. Rogers. Now we’ll hear from Ms. Templeton of the Association for Lower Property Tax. Ms. Templeton, the floor is yours.

Ms. T: Thank you. I agree that schools are important. However, I have been through several schools in Janesville and find them bright, cheerful, clean and up to date. I do not understand why Ms. Rogers claims that they are so decrepit and in disrepair. Our group believes that the most important factor in local growth and development is the need to reduce property taxes. We have to make it easier and more attractive for people to move here and stay. Our spending per child on education here in Janesville is well within the average nationwide, and our dropout rate is less than 10%. Our pay to teachers is above average for the nation. I believe we are doing quite well, so if our teachers are not satisfied with what they are getting, they should quit, and we will hire someone who will be happy to work for that salary. I and my group are firmly opposed to any increase in the education budget.

G: According to our rules, Ms. Templeton mentioned Ms. Roger’s name and raised a question about something she said, so Ms. Rogers has an opportunity to respond. Ms. Rogers?

R: Yes, I would like to respond to that. I don’t know what schools Ms. Templeton visited, but I’m glad she said what she did because she is drawing attention to the real problem, which is the inequality of education received by children in affluent neighborhoods versus children in less affluent neighborhoods. If Ms. Templeton and her group are willing, I will be more than happy to take them on a tour of schools that I am sure she will agree are suffering in terms of facility, equipment, and overall budget. In fact, perhaps we should interrupt this meeting until I’ve had a chance to take all our opponents through the schools I’m talking about. 

G: Ms. Rogers mentioned you, Ms. Templeton, and raised a question about which schools you have visited. She also invited you to tour certain schools she would like to show you. Would you like to respond?

Ms. T: I would prefer to hear what other speakers have to say.

G: OK, thank you. Now let me call on….

Studs: Just a minute, Ms. Guliscerian. I’ve been a councilman in this town for over 25 years. I was not consulted with respect to this meeting, and when I first heard that such a meeting was being planned, I expressed my strong opposition. Now here you are, running this meeting, calling on people as if you were in charge here. This meeting is costing taxpayer money, and the City Council has never approved the expenditure of those funds. In fact, the Council has never approved or even deliberated the idea of holding this meeting. I demand that this meeting be adjourned until it has been discussed and approved by the City Council. (Stunned silence. Everyone is waiting to see what the city manager does.)

G: Mr. Jacobsen is right. He did express his strong opposition to holding this or any similar meeting to address the education crisis. He wanted the decision to be made in the City Council by a majority vote of the council members. However, that is not how ARP makes decisions. We feel we need to hear from anyone who has anything to add to the conversation, and we feel we need to make this decision as a community because this decision needs to be the best our entire community can do. 

Mr. Jacobsen is also right that this meeting is using taxpayer money. And, I will tell you exactly how much. So far we have spent approximately 1000 dollars. The use of this stadium was donated free of charge. The money spent has been for publicity, to make sure you all know what we’re doing and when and how. We also printed up the agreements you signed when you arrived. 

As your city manager, I have a budget that can be used at my discretion for conferences and meetings that I feel are important to the community. I feel this conference is important, so I am funding it entirely out of my own budget. As a result, this is a city manager event, which means that I am solely in charge. The City Council has no right to influence this conference in any way without a specific invitation from me. Therefore, I have to ask you, Mr. Jacobsen, to please relinquish the microphone, step aside and wait until I call on you. I assure you I will give you an opportunity to speak your piece, but I have a certain orderly process planned. I have to ask you to wait your turn. (Murmurs of approval, support for the city manager.)

Mr. J: This meeting is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. You can’t ask thousands of people to make a decision about our education system. This is not the way important decisions get made. Decisions are made by elected officials. We represent the people precisely because enormous meetings like this are impractical and impossible. I’ve been a councilman since before you were born, Harmony, so I will speak my piece right now, and I call on you and everyone involved to stop this farce so we can get back to business. 

With that, Ms. Guliscerian turns away from Mr. Jacobsen and walks offstage. 

Mr. J: Ladies and Gentlemen, I think you can see that Ms. Guliscerian has overstepped her authority and is holding here what I consider to be an illegal meeting. I ask you all to go home. The city manager and the City Council need to work this out amongst ourselves before we bring anything to you. So please…

At that, Ms. Guliscerian returns with three policemen. The policemen attempt to quietly and calmly persuade Mr. Jacobsen to leave the stage. When one of them touches his arm to usher him away, he jerks away and says loud enough for the mic to pick up, “Get your hands off me. I’m a City Councilman. I will not be removed from a stage in my own city.”

In response, the policeman in charge says, “Mr. Jacobsen, this is a city manager event. The city manager is fully responsible and in control here. She was appointed by the City Council, which was elected by the people. She occupies an office higher than yours. I suggest you come off the stage immediately or I will arrest you and remove you physically.”

Mr. Jacobsen is dumfounded. It never occurred to him that little Harmony Guliscerian was in a position to call in the police or that they would side with her over him. As he walks slowly toward the edge of the stage, voices in the audience begin jeering and deriding him. 

M.G.: Please folks, don’t make it worse for him than it is. Mr. Jacobsen has been running this town for a long time. He’s having an extremely difficult time with the changes I’m making. He’s not a bad person. He really does care about Janesville and all of you. He just has a different idea about how government should be conducted, and he’s so convinced of his righteousness and, especially, of his superiority to a younger woman like me, that he finds it emotionally impossible to let me exercise my prerogatives as city manager. Let’s be generous and forgiving and do our best to work with him and the rest of the City Council. Now, let’s get back to the business at hand. I now call Tim Johnson, who is head of the PTA in Parker High School.

Of course, Mr. Jacobsen’s performance was recorded and is instantly on YouTube. It goes viral. Janesville is in the news for something other than Paul Ryan, and the ARP continues its dramatic growth.

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