The Polk School Board is considering a truly bizarre overhaul of its policies concerning board member “standards of ethical conduct.” Here is one suggested addition. (I’ll tackle another in a subsequent article.)
“Each Board member must recognize that decisions must be made by the Board as a whole and that when made, these decisions must be supported by the entire Board.”
The plain language of this makes it unethical for elected board members to advocate for change or make any change to policy. For instance, if a majority of the board mandated that all board meetings occur in the nude, it would not be enough for the minority to recognize the policy and get naked. The minority could not ethically object to being naked. And board members and attendees would be naked forever because all board decisions must be “supported.” To object to the nudity would open board members to an ethics complaint. That’s how absurd this language is. You could fix the entire thing by making “supported” into “acknowledged.” But then it would be unnecessary and useless as a weapon for the chair and majority of the board to use against a minority, which I suspect is its real purpose.
Criticism of power = “slaughter”
This ethics language eliminates any form of democratic governing expression from your individual School Board members. It is bonkers. And lest you say, “nobody would file an ethics complaint over something so silly,” think again. Consider Wendy Dodge, the district’s lobbyist and keeper of the policy process, the very employee who presented this language to us on Tuesday. Earlier this year she filed a frivolous and dismissed ethics complaint against me for tweeting about a chapter I donated without pay to a history book about Florida’s governors. We’ll come back to that in a second for a different, more sympathetic reason.
But first, listen to Kay Fields explain the reasoning behind this ethics idea. You can hear Board Chair Lori Cunningham, who got pretty snippy over this whole discussion, expressing agreement as Kay is speaking.
Here are the actual words. Note the part I’ve accentuated:
“If we vote on an issue, and I’m against it, and if the majority rules, I’m not to go out and just slaughter the board members who made the decisions to go forth with the vote, whichever it may be. I think that’s what it’s saying. Even though I may not agree with the vote that was made that I am supposed to move on and support whatever is in place to better our students and school district.”
First, let me say this: never, while I was on the board, did I or would I seek to discourage any other board member from trying to change my mind or criticize my vote on a policy. If the criticism is good enough, they might change my mind. I’m always open to it. That’s the point of governing — getting to good policy, not avoiding criticism.
But second, read what leaps into Kay Fields’ mind in describing a basic function of democratic self-government. For one elected official to criticize another elected official for that elected official’s exercise of power delegated to it by the public is “slaughter.” Slaughter. Let me say that again. Slaughter.
The odd, violent, conspiratorial imagery of Gow-Anon
Hearing that, it’s very hard not to also hear Gow Fields declaring in an open meeting that basic ethical elected official oversight of a highly paid, very powerful superintendent is just like race murder. And that individual board members — myself included — are just like race murderers.
To the Fieldses, it is “slaughter” and “Officer Chauvin” to even engage people in a position of public power and authority. I can’t even begin to access that psychology. I can only observe it. For longtime public figures to hate scrutiny or criticism so much that they both express it as the highest form of painful murderous violence in metaphor…well, I got nothing. I just wish them peace.
The more I think about it, the more this whole strange multi-year School Board experience with the Fieldses reminds me of Q-Anon. It comes with an elaborate conspiratorial mythology built around a central core of horrible and violent imagery. Call it Gow-Anon.
If you talk to Gow, as various people have about this, and as I’ve seen in various of his hard-to-follow Facebook posts, there’s a whole web of grievance and mythological events going back to his term as mayor in Lakeland. There was a “no confidence” vote I supposedly organized about the superintendent. There were private threatening conversations. There’s all this secret evidence that I’m out to get people or that I’m a secret racist or something, despite this relentlessly public record to the contrary.
None of that Gow-Anon conspiratorial fantasy that ever happened. But it was always pretty hard to rebut tangled allegations I could barely even follow. And then Ruling Class Club totally bought into Gow-Anon.
Ashley Bell Barnett started ripping into me online once about the “no confidence vote” that never happened — not even as a thought. The Gow-Anon network said it happened; and she listened. So Wesley did, too. And all the rest. They all settled on this:
Vote against this person because he’s secret racist who secretly threatens Trump voters and secretly hates Civics.
LOL. That is peak Gow-Anon.
And I think the affinity, the willingness to buy-in, stems from the same root: don’t you know who we are? Don’t you know our club grants immunity to its members for anything they do? How dare you break our rules? How dare you scrutinize us? Who are you?
A pivot to talking directly to power
This is most likely the last time I’ll ever write anything concerning Gow or Kay, unless they do anything as elected officials I need to address. I think everybody is sick of whatever this is; I know I am.
And frankly, the people who amplified Gow-Anon with their money are much more significant to the life of our community than Gow-Anon itself. To be frank, they have the capital; Gow and Kay don’t. Concentrated capital is where real power dwells. Ask the Lakeland City Commission.
The names on this list below are the people we all have to talk to, whether they want to engage in the dialogue or not. If you want power to behave better, you have to engage it.
I was pleased to see a Jack Harrell tune in to my Facebook Town Hall other night. I have a little trouble keeping the various Harrells straight because I’ve never met them. Perhaps that will change; or perhaps they’ll just keep using Gow-Anon and trying to inflict harm with it. I would prefer the former. But it’s up to them.
Something better than fear and fake conspiracy
In kicking off this conversation with power, I think it’s actually quite useful to come back to Wendy Dodge and her ethics complaint — which may be the silliest single ethics complaint in the history of ethics complaints. (Find one that is sillier)
And yet, underneath that silliness, I think, lay a terror of power that we should all recognize.
There’s no way to know for certain; but I suspect Wendy actually filed that silly ethics complaint because she thought I wanted to fire her for accompanying the superintendent not the infamous November 2019 trip to San Diego for a Jeb Bush Foundation education conference. I publicly objected to both the superintendent and Wendy attending at the time. And I said I didn’t want the district’s lobbyist function doing advocacy work at a conference full of people who hate public education.
I lacked the power to do anything directly about the lobbyist function except publicly advocate for a change in priority. I had no power at all to “fire” Wendy, nor did I have any reason to call for it, which I never did. Even if I had the power, at no point did I ever remotely envision firing Wendy, who is a mother and long-time employee, over a conference.
Instead, I wanted governing changes in functional thinking and priority, not retribution. I don’t use power for indulgent personal retribution. Ever. And I don’t punch down. I should have been more explicit about this at the time. I thought I was making constructive, if forceful, criticism; perhaps Wendy thought I was threatening.
If so, I wonder if Wendy’s career-long exposure to the raw dynamics of political and economic power in Polk County and in Tallahassee contributed to that perception. She’s spent a career watching power operate, watching powerful people knife the unpowerful. She and I have known each other quite a while and were quite friendly before the San Diego trip. I would have assumed she knew that’s not how I operate. But apparently not.
When one is conditioned to expect that criticism or political disagreement is built around personally hurting and dominating and intimidating the other parties, it’s easy to see, in retrospect, why one might respond in fear and self-defense to criticism.
I’d like to help build a different dynamic and expectation in this county and beyond, one in which elected officials and powerful people alike actually take responsibility for the outcomes of their actions; where they actually welcome and consider critiques; where they perceive critiques as necessary collaboration in the construction of a better, fairer, less threatening community ethic of self-governance.
I think that’s a lot better than government by G0w-Anon.
In any event, “slaughter” of board members is already illegal. In most states, they execute you for it. And one of the advantages of losing an election is that nobody can file an ethics complaint against me for critiquing a School Board decision, no matter what prohibition on the board ultimately adopts as its “ethics.”