Monday, June 24, 2013

The Grammarian and the Alderman: My Foray Into Local Political Action

Last week, I told you that my city (St. Louis) was considering a ban on sagging pants. As I noted in that post, I am completely against such a ban and wanted to exercise my civic responsibility in letting my local representatives know.

I don't know how local politics are arranged in most cities, but St. Louis is broken down into 28 wards that are represented by Aldermen (who are elected by the people in each Ward). I contacted the Alderman over my Ward, but he is not on the committee (the Public Safety Committee) where this bill is being debated. If the bill makes it through committee, it will go up for a vote among all of the Aldermen.

st louis arch

I am not even going to pretend that I understand all the complicated interconnectedness of local politics, but judging from the few conversations I've had with a few of these aldermen and alderwomen, they are complex and often petty. There appears to be in-fighting, alliances, and tit-for-tat handling of issues. It's like a really, really boring episode of Parks & Rec.

At the suggestion of my own Alderman, I contacted all 11 representatives on the Public Safety Committee since that is where this bill is currently awaiting its fate. So far, three of them have responded to me. One supported my view. One co-sponsored the bill, but was polite in the correspondence, and the other one resulted in an email exchange that absolutely flabbergasted me.

In the interest of transparency, you can find the entire exchange documented here, but I'm just going to take some key quotes for this blog post (my responses are in gray; his are in blue). (Also, all of these emails were sent to me from this alderman's professional, City-issued email account.)

Act 1: An Unprofessional Exchange

The letter I sent to the committee was basically a slightly more professional version of the blog post I wrote laying out my objections to this bill.

In response, the Alderman wrote me this:

I appreciate your view and your comments, but I aslo don't like the remarks your making first of all the Public Saftey Committie does not pick and decide where bills that are introduced go to that is done by the Board President, the 18 people that were shot in a matter of hours all knew each other according to police and third of all seeing kids and adults walking around with their pants and shorts hanging showing their ass is not only dissapointing but yes disgusting I sure wouldnt want my 4 year old grandaughter seeing that.

Again everyone has an opinion, I dont hink people should get locked up for sagging pants, but I think the Alderwomen wants to see something done so people respect their selves and others.
 Look, I am not the grammar police, and as I have written about in the past, I don't think that grammar should be held up to judge people's intelligence or abilities, but I do expect a certain level of professionalism from an elected official.

This email contains multiple spelling errors, several run-on sentences and comma splices, a lack of a controlling idea, homophone confusion, and the use of the word "ass" in a professional exchange.

This sent a very clear message to me that the Alderman didn't proofread, re-read, or think very long about his thoughts before responding to me. It was disrespectful and unprofessional from the beginning.

In my initial response, I didn't mention this unprofessional style at all. I did express my disappointment in his seeming support for this bill, which I gathered from his own admission that he wants to "see something done" about people "showing their ass." I told him, among other things:

I am disappointed that it sounds like you support this bill.

Act 2: Getting Personal

His next response jumped to a level of personal hostility that I don't think was justified:
    I really notice people already know im supporting something when they have no clue and neither do you, I never said I liked the bill, I simply stated that something should be done reguading the matter it is disgusting to see kids and grown men wearing their shorts the way some do, the police should write a summons and the city fine them, then maybe they will pull their pants up.
So, to paraphrase: "I never said I liked the bill. I just said that I support what's in it."

At this point, I was truly confused by what he was saying, and I responded:
Perhaps if I was confused by your wording, it is because your original letter was so full of run-ons, typos, misspelled words, comma splices, and other grammatical errors as to be almost unreadable. I can only go off of your own words, and your own words are unprofessional (really, including the word "ass" in professional correspondence is fairly asinine.)
I'm not sure I should have said that. It's snarky and mean, and I try to keep my correspondence a little more balanced in tone. However, by this point, I was absolutely struck by the hypocrisy in a man who wants to police how others dress using such a crass mode of expression himself. 

After he sent me another typo-laden letter that didn't address any of the things I actually said to him, I responded with this:

This entire exchange has been combative, rude, and unprofessional. I was not attacking your grammar or spelling out of spite. I literally could barely read what you wrote. The sentences all ran together. It looked like something that was written without any care, thought, or proofreading. You are treating me incredibly disrespectfully when all I did was use my rights as a citizen to voice an opinion. 
 And later I said:
Grammar is much like style, actually. Here's an interesting article from the New York Times that explains the connection. I don't think that proper grammar makes someone a good person. I also don't think that sagging pants makes someone a bad one. I find it ironic that you think it's okay to attack someone's fashion choices (and you said yourself, in an email that I can quote back to you if you would like, that you support fines for sagging pants), but you yourself are making such poor grammar choices in a professional setting. If you felt insulted by my comments, imagine how a young man would feel who is being arrested and fined for his clothes.

The Final Act: Unprofessionalism Abounds

In his final email to me, the Alderman said this:
Well I have never had a person in my ward complain about the way I communicate with them on my page so im glad you don't live in my ward.
What?! I have kept my tone professional and tried to focus on the topic at hand throughout my entire exchange. I am a citizen of the City he works for. He is on a Public Safety Committee that serves the whole city (not only his own Ward). Furthermore, as a representative of the City, his statement that he's glad I'm not one of his residents is isolating and cruel.

The City of St. Louis already has a problem with an exodus of professional families taking their tax dollars with them. To have a City official out-and-out tell me that he doesn't want me in his neighborhood is incredibly rude and insulting.

I contacted the Mayor and Aldermanic President about his unprofessional conduct, but I don't know if I will get a response.

Curtain Call

I don't personally know this alderman. If I had to guess, I'd suspect that he's probably a decent guy who ran for a local election in a neighborhood that he cares about. I'm definitely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that. 

However, his response to me indicates a level of incompetence on the local level that is absolutely flabbergasting to me. 

I teach writing to community college students, many of them residents of this City. One of the things we talk about is the role of writing in civic discourse. I teach them that writing is a way to have their voices heard in public policies that directly impact them. I believe in that message. 

Many of my students (and members of the community in general) get nervous about writing to public officials. How would one of them feel if their heartfelt letter was met with this kind of rude and condescending response? Would it be enough to discourage them from participating in civic discourse in the future? 

Finally, what does this exchange suggest about the expectations we put upon and communicate to our local officials? I would hope that they know this kind of response is unacceptable in an elected public office. What responsibility do we have as citizens to hold our representatives accountable for the position in which they serve? (I know I would never expect to be able to talk to a student the way that this elected official just talked to me.)

UPDATE: This alderman responded to me again to tell me that he had no responsibility to hear my concerns since I wasn't in his Ward (even though he is serving on a city-wide committee). I have updated the Google Doc to include this final email, but it's short enough and mean enough that I thought I would also post it here:
Thank you for finaly ending this conversation, because you are almost at the point of harassing me, I certainly don't have to answer to you on anything, my concerns are the people in the 12th ward.

You may contact the Mayor and the President all you want, the bottom line is the people in my ward vote also and I do include them in my voting.

Please do not respond back, but I do understand your concern on the issue.
This is a politician who is being elected by the citizens of St. Louis and paid by our tax dollars. He is serving on a Public Safety Committee that determines laws for the entire city, and he literally told me that my voice does not matter to him and that he does not want to hear from me.

I can't say I'm particularly encouraged about the state of my city right now.

Any other local politics horror stories out there? Any successes? What have your experiences with local politics been?

Edit: I wanted to say that I didn't post this until I had found federal court cases where the emails of public officials were allowed to be published publicly without the writer's consent. I am generally very respectful of privacy, but this man wrote to me as a public elected official from his professional email account. I feel that his constituents have the right to see how he is representing them. 

Photo: Christina Rutz


  1. Amanda Roberts-AndersonJune 24, 2013 at 8:58 PM

    I totally agree. I think this needs more local exposure that one of the newspapers could provide. Try sending it as an actual one-time column to the editor, though, so it will get more notice and respect than just as a "letter to the editor" thing.

  2. Michelle, Tarrell (black guy from SLU). We have got to talk, my friend. Whew! Right on. I have lived in St. Louis nearly all of my life and this has onsistently been the tone of our ELECTED representatives. They do not respect us at all. They, seemingly, pay little attention to the educations that they chastise us for teaching, yet heed infrequently. Way to go! Strike a blow for the little people.

  3. Wow. This is both disturbing and kind of hilarious. (Less funny if this guy is your elected official, I guess.) You are giving him far more credit than I would.

  4. This would be hilarious if it weren't true. Poe's law strikes again! On a more serious note, that is extremely discouraging for the state of democracy

  5. BRAVO! Michelle. I'm so glad you took time to point out the outrageous priorities of a few alderpersons! There are too many arrests and too many young people unjustly imprisoned for reasons that are prejudicial. You may have read the heavily researched book "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander that documents a new, seemingly colorblind, racism.