Whatever the context, the seven members of city's Human Relations Commission agreed at a spring meeting that public discourse in Palo Alto had become less than civil, according to Chairwoman Shauna Wilson Mora.
They feared the combative climate would keep potential community volunteers from stepping forward to share their skills, she added.
So the commission, acting on its broad mandate to "act with respect to any human relations matter when the Commission finds that any person or group does not benefit fully from public or private opportunities or resources in the community," decided to hold a meeting, scheduled for last Thursday.
But differing visions of the discussion, several communication lapses and a high-profile opinion piece in the Weekly by Commissioner Jeff Blum turned the commissioners' intentions to boost civility on end. Instead of easing the strife, it refueled the Mandarin immersion clash and "alarmed and distressed" leaders of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center. The stir also incensed a small but vocal group of activists who said they viewed attempts to encourage civility as attacks on the freedom of speech.
The discussion ran into trouble before the meeting even started.
In the column published July 11 in the Palo Alto Weekly, Blum wrote that he wanted to delve into the Mandarin immersion debate and charges of anti-Semitism against the Peace and Justice Center, with hopes to "heal, clear up misunderstandings and possibly set common goals for the future."
He also wrote that he had invited "the parties" to the July 12 meeting.
But neither the opponents to Mandarin immersion nor the Peace and Justice Center were formally invited, according to parent Lynn Magill and center Director Paul George.
Blum sent out at least one e-mail on July 6 to a dozen addresses involved with the Mandarin immersion debate, the majority representing proponents.
The e-mail went to one address of opponents to the Mandarin language program that has been rarely checked since the Board of Education's decision in June to offer Mandarin immersion, Magill said.
But even when the opponents spotted the e-mail, it contained a follow-up response from a Mandarin supporter stating that "much of the opposition to MI was racial/ethnic in origin," Magill said.
Blum had also responded to that comment, stating: "Thank you for candidly expressing your concerns."
Mandarin immersion opponents were offended and decided not to attend the meeting, Magill said, adding that short notice in the summer time didn't help.
"We're just tired of defending our position that we're not racist," she said.
The Peace and Justice Center's George said he only learned of the meeting, and the center's supposed involvement, when he read Blum's column.
Blum said he had asked Mora to invite George to the meeting and had assumed she had invited him. She hadn't, Mora said, partly because she didnít know what to say. Mora later apologized to Blum and George.
George penned a letter to the commission stating that the column caused "severe and perhaps irreparable harm" to the organization's reputation by reiterating the anti-Semitic charges. The letter also asked for a clarifying opinion piece in the Weekly, cancellation of the July 12 discussion and the answers to several questions, including the limits of a commissioner's authority.
The conflict involving the Peace and Justice Center, which has raised the issue of the Palestinian cause for many years, was much lower profile in the community than the Mandarin immersion debate. The Weekly featured the 25-year-old organization in April, an article that included a brief reference to the non-profit's "anti-Israel" stance. Several letters were written in response.
By the time the meeting began Thursday, a thread on the Weekly's online forum, Town Square, was packed with expressions of speculation, frustration, confusion and anger.
Going into the meeting, Mora said her role "was about repair work."
"It's unfortunate the HRC became part of the conflict rather than a way of being able to encourage and a place of venue for people to be able to talk about the way we communicate," she said.
Mora, who reviews a draft of the agenda along with Vice Chair Lenoir, said she originally envisioned a general discussion of communication guidelines. Perhaps the commission would create a "communication agreement" that could be signed by speakers addressing public boards, commissions or councils encouraging them to consider the effect of their words on the audience, Mora said.
When the agenda for the July 12 meeting was released, item 3 was titled: "Discussion regarding civic discourse and community conflicts," a listing that legally constrained the commission from straying into the meat of the divisive issues.
Blum had not seen the agenda before he wrote the column and said that, in retrospect, he wished he had been more specific about the agenda item so the speakers could address particular issues.
More than 20 people attended July 12, a crowd by HRC standards. Mora began the discussion by laying ground rules that were informed by a city attorney's interpretation of the agenda.
"This is not a time to discuss any particular issue or the merit of any particular issue," Mora said. "It is, however, an opportunity to talk about how you may have felt about conversations."
"What I would like to see come out of this agenda is moving forward and bridging the gaps," Blum said.
About 13 people addressed the commission. Several speakers said it was not within the commission's authority to govern speech, a few tried to talk about specific issues, particularly Mandarin immersion and several offered comments on culturing a climate of civic discourse.
The commissioners spoke only briefly. Some were clearly eager to end the divisive issue.
Mendoza's view differed from his colleagues, however.
The issue is deeper than just the way people communicate, he said.
"To try to control the speech people use isn't going to address the underlying issues," he said. "The more important issue is what is it in the community that is driving people's emotions to come out in that matter. To try to control the way they talk to each other is not a solution. It's a Band-Aid that's not going to stop any bleeding."
Blum said he would like to pursue ideas introduced at the meeting including holding a town forum on a specific divisive issue or hosting speakers on civic dialogue.
"What came out of it was that more work needs to be done," Savage said.
Mandarin supporter Nico Janik, who attended the meeting, said she wasn't sure if the meeting had any goals.
"It was a little disorganized. It was hard to tell," she said.
Nonetheless, she came out of it convinced a community mediation session that would bring both sides of the Mandarin debate together, face-to-face, would be helpful, because the previous exchanges have been limited to three minute blurbs at Board of Education meetings or sometimes anonymous give-and-takes on Town Square.
"I think it could be a really helpful thing for everybody," Janik said.
Mora said the commission will discuss civic communication, the events leading to the July 12 meeting and the role of opinion pieces at its September retreat.
Anyone interested in working with the commission to promote civil discourse was encouraged to call the city's Human Services Director Kathy Espinoza-Howard at 329-2639.
Daryl Savage is a columnist for the Weekly. Jeff Blum is on the Weekly's Board of Contributors.
This story contains 1270 words.
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