At this moment St. Helena resembles a dysfunctional family: competing interests, division between factions, and growing resentment toward an authority figure who’s not accustomed to open rebellion.
That’s why some observers of the drive to recall Mayor Alan Galbraith are advocating mediation, which is roughly equivalent to family counseling. In both cases, the idea is that a neutral third party and a confidential setting can help opposing parties air their grievances and negotiate a mutually acceptable truce.
There are too many unanswered questions to know whether private negotiations could prevent a divisive and distracting recall campaign. Not everyone on our editorial board is optimistic. But it might be worth a try.
City Councilmember Mary Koberstein, one of three councilmembers who is urging mediation, made her case to our board last week. She talked only about process, not the merits of the recall or its supporters’ underlying concerns.
Rather than mediation, which carries some unpleasantly litigious connotations, our board prefers meet-and-confer, a term borrowed from labor negotiations. Here are some pros and cons of a meet-and-confer:
Pros: Successful negotiations could potentially avoid a bitter and time-consuming recall campaign that would distract the city from other more pressing matters. Mediation has worked before in St. Helena (the bocce wars of the 2000s, an eminent domain dispute involving the flood project), and mediator extraordinaire Scott Snowden, the widely respected retired judge who settled those disputes, has offered his services pro bono.
Cons: The chances of success are questionable, since it’s not clear exactly what proponents want — short of removing Galbraith from office — or what Galbraith could offer that would satisfy them. A few issues that seem to be at the heart of the recall, such as Galbraith’s style and personality, are beyond mediation.
We remain firmly opposed to the recall, and we’re not completely sold on the idea of a meet-and-confer. But we don’t see what harm it could do to give it a try, on one condition: The recall proponents must agree on the issues that are bothering them and spell out the goals they wish to achieve through negotiation.
This proposal should be given to Snowden. It needn’t be made public, and Snowden can decide how to present it to Galbraith.
The list of grievances and goals should be specific – much more so than the statement that announced the recall — and aimed at reconciliation. Insisting that the mayor resign is an obvious non-starter, and trying to change his personality is similarly pointless.
But a meet-and-confer based on reasonable ground rules might lead to greater mutual understanding on the part of the mayor and his opponents on topics like the Beringer project, the funding of the York Creek Dam removal, the future of the Adams Street property, and enforcement of the council’s three-minute limit on public comments.
That greater understanding and empathy might – and again, we’re not overly optimistic – be enough to end the recall efforts.
Individual councilmembers are free to support or oppose the process, but the council as a whole shouldn’t play any part in it. The council should stay focused on governance: the SHAPE committee, an evaluation of city properties, and City Manager Mark Prestwich’s effort to make city government more open and transparent via early agenda postings, monthly town hall meetings, and more public records being accessible on the city’s website.
That open exchange of information and ideas, and a willingness to listen to one another, are ultimately the only ways to restore harmony to the St. Helena family.