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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 07, 2001

On Deadline: The elephant in the council chambers... On Deadline: The elephant in the council chambers... (November 07, 2001)

by Jay Thorwaldson

A former member of the Palo Alto City Council -- and a longtime observer of city politics -- observed recently the current council is a lot like a dysfunctional family.

A colorful description of such families is that they have "an elephant in the living room," the former council member pointed out.

The elephant may be something of which family members are not conscious, or it may be something they can't acknowledge or discuss openly as a family. The family's elephant can relate to alcoholism, drug addiction, rage-aholism, workaholism, mental or emotional instability, or abuse. It can be an unmentionable failing marriage, a hidden power struggle, or when one person must control everything and the others must go along or face consequences.

In all cases, the elephant isn't a person -- it's what is called the "family system" (under a "family systems theory" of psychology developed a few decades back at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto). The idea is that no member of a family is an island, and actions of any member affect all.

Thus those walking on eggs to avoid "setting off" another family member are as much a part of the pattern (the elephant) as the person about to find some excuse for getting set off -- they are the so-called "enablers" or "co-dependents," who often are rescuers and excuse-makers as well.

The elephant will remain until the family splits apart and scatters or begins to identify, wrestle with and tame the beast -- never easy. Such elephants almost never leave on their own.

Elephants also can be found in offices, but they are rare in politics. They don't like the proverbial "heat of the kitchen," the usual political process of open debate, up-front confrontations and fully visible power struggles.

What does this pop-psychology metaphor have to do with the Palo Alto City Council?

Anyone close enough has observed -- or been affected by -- the situation in which Councilwoman Nancy Lytle and the other eight council members are engaged in a personal/political dance of some type. The "council system" becomes most visible over issues such as use of school properties for non-school uses; almost any planning matter that relates to the city's new Comprehensive Plan; and items involving Stanford University, among others. (It is not the same as an 8-to-1 vote split, which doesn't happen all that often.)

The issue with other council members seems to be not just that Lytle has her own agenda (which is OK) but that she insists the council follow it -- even if it means making an end-run around the council, as in the recent killing of an intergenerational center at the former Ventura School.

Lytle herself denies anything unusual is happening -- and seems to interpret any mention of the situation as a personal attack upon her. But she once said to me that part of the problem may be that she is an "agent of change" on the council, and that others may resent that.

No others, so far, have been willing to speak "on the record" about the situation: "None of us want to be a target," one council member told me in late-September, off the record, referring to Lytle and a tightly knit group of supporters.

So here's a case where both sides feel like victims or potential victims of attacks. If that's not elephant sign, what is?

Yet when the council tried to address some of the issues in a retreat at the Art Center early this year, everyone danced around the matter in a waltz of generalizations -- dancing with the elephant, in circles.

More than a year ago, reporter Don Kazak wrote an Our Town column in which he observed that most council members were "irked" at Lytle for how she responded to being on the short end of a council vote. Their perception was that she rallied citizens to lobby the council, allegedly with not-quite-complete information, then professed innocent surprise at the strength of feedback from the community. I commented that irked was a pretty soft term; some were "livid" (off the record, of course).

Even with the mild "irked," Lytle objected strenuously and angrily to the "anonymous attacks" against her, and said writing such articles is flat out journalistically unethical. That fact that some of the most conscientious and ethical journalists in the nation write such "according to sources" stories regularly is relevant here, perhaps. (No responsible journalist enjoys writing such stories. It's too easy for "sources" to try to use the journalist without having to be held accountable for the completeness or accuracy of the information, and much extra caution is required.)

But there's a countervailing ethical concern: When a journalist knows that something is occurring but doesn't report it because he or she can't get someone to go on the record about it, that can be unethically negligent of the public's right -- or need -- to know what public officials are up to.

"I'm just trying to learn the rules," Lytle told me over one of our occasional breakfast meetings a couple of months back when the topic of her relations with other council members came up -- repeating something she's said publicly a number of times.

"It seems to me, Nancy," I suggested, "that you're trying to rewrite them." Jay Thorwaldson is editor of the Weekly. He can be e-mailed at [email protected]


 

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