As well-dressed city dignitaries and council spouses filed into council chambers to witness the ceremonical swearing-in of four reelected city council members and one mayor this afternoon, the council itself was mired in intrigue so thick that at one point it was unclear whether the show would go on at all.
The source of today’s frenzied, hush-hush negotiations was a position so obscure that probably no more than one out of ten citizens can say who currently holds the post, but so coveted it has caused serious acrimony between long-term colleagues: the council presidency, currently held by Jan Drago but sought by both two-term incumbent Richard Conlin and first-term council member Jean Godden. Drago, who was supposed to surrender the post today, will hold on to the position until the council can agree on a new ceremonial leader; currently, the council’s eight remaining members (minus Jim Compton) are split 4-4 between Godden and Conlin, and no one seems willing to budge.
Enter Tom Rasmussen, the quiet, hard-working Conlin supporter whose ongoing vacation in Ecuador left the council with a 4-3 majority in favor of Godden on Monday, its first meeting after a three-week recess. Rasmussen’s long-planned trip ignited a flurry of conspiracy theories in December, when Conlin supporters expressed concern that Godden (or Drago, a strong Godden supporter) would force a vote while Rasmussen was out of reach. Such a vote, the city attorney’s office has confirmed, would be legally defensible.
As of Friday, Conlin and Godden were working on a deal under which Godden would cede the presidency in exchange for new committee responsibilities. This morning, however, the council remained in deadlock, with four members each supporting Godden and Conlin. All that changed around 11:30, when council members and staff got wind of a plan by Godden’s supporters (Drago, Godden, David Della, and Richard McIver) to force a vote on the presidency, giving Godden a 4-3 majority. Soon the entire council hallway was awash in intrigue, with each faction meeting in frantic closed-door meetings, separating briefly into their individual offices, then reconvening for yet another meeting a few minutes later. (I personally saw Nick Licata, Peter Steinbrueck, and Conlin retreat into three meetings in three different council offices over the course of an hour.) Council members were pissed at other council members, council staffers were pissed at other staff, and all the while the 2:00 deadline approached when everyone would have to file into council chambers and make nice while friends and family members administered the ceremonial oath of office.
A vote today, Conlin supporter Licata told me about an hour before the meeting, “would certainly violate the spirit of democracy. This seems to be taking direct advantage of [Rasmussen] being gone.” Peter Steinbrueck, who appeared simultaneously livid and bemused at the whole debacle, told me angrily that “there is nothing to justify such an underhanded approach.” He added, “This is not the time or the place to be having a political brawl. It’s supposed to be a day of celebration.”
Finally, the deadlock broke. Conlin, Steinbrueck and Licata threatened to walk out of the meeting. That would leave just four members - one member less than the quorum required to hold a council meeting. That would cancel the swearing-in, embarrass the current council president, Drago, and give Rasmussen - who was unreachable all day today, and presumably had no idea what was going on in his absence - a chance to come back from his vacation early or negotiate with his colleagues about when a vote might happen. Drago, recognizing that such a spectacle would not be “good for the council or the city,” agreed to vote against any motion to choose the president without Rasmussen present, and the whole issue was tabled until at least next week. And life went on.
What all this ultimately means for the council, however, is still less than clear. Both Conlin and Godden are compromised now, both by their political maneuverings and by the lack of consensus for either candidate. “Both Richard and Jean are going to have challenges mending fences and rebuilding relationships,” Steinbrueck told me. That gives rise, yet again, to the possibility that a third “compromise” candidate, such as Nick Licata, could take the position - a possibility no one appears to be ruling out.