Palo Alto Council Drops Plan to Ban Rude Body Language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 7 17:41:08 UTC 2003

 From the New York Times, May 7, 2003

Chastened Palo Alto Council Drops Plan to Ban Rude Body Language


    PALO ALTO, Calif., May 5 This is not a place that takes well to being
the butt of jokes. Home to a prestigious university, Nobel laureates and
some of the biggest winners of Silicon Valley's high-tech revolution, Palo
Alto has a population that usually feels pretty good about itself. The
city's Web site immodestly states that "residents are highly educated,
politically aware and culturally sophisticated." In her state of the city
address last week, the mayor, Dena Mossar, declared, "Palo Alto is the
envy of others."

That may explain why the City Council retreated tonight in great haste
and, it is important to note, pronounced civility from a year-old proposal
that would have banned rude behavior and unflattering personal gestures by
council members. It seems the council just couldn't take the heat anymore.
"Seeing how this has played all over the country has given people a
start," Councilman Jim Burch said. "It is like the old game of telephone.
Something is said and then it gets manipulated and distorted in each

By a vote of 9 to 0, and an impressive showing of pearly whites for the
cameras, the council adopted rules to govern its conduct. But members
struck the parts that would have done away with "body language or other
nonverbal methods of expressing disagreement or disgust," which had drawn
news coverage and public ridicule from as far away as Britain and New
Zealand. "I am going to be smiling through this whole meeting no matter
what happens," said Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg, whose committee had spent
seven hours drafting the rules. The council dealt with the agenda item in
24 minutes, and not a voice or eyebrow was raised.

"Let's remember, perfection is the enemy of progress," Mayor Mossar said
in encouraging her colleagues not to nitpick their way through the eight
pages of rules. It was not that council members disagreed with the idea of
doing something about the eye rolling, frowning and harrumphing that have
become increasingly commonplace at a City Hall that for years prided
itself on its civility. But with a bank of television cameras and
reporters documenting the council's every twitch and yawn, those antics
suddenly seemed less problematic than the mounting public relations

"It is quite clear we did not think about what we said initially, and now
that we have had second thoughts, it is clear that we never should have
had a limitation on expression,"  Councilman Jack Morton, who was elected
last year, said. There was the mocking by conservative talk radio hosts,
most notably Rush Limbaugh, city officials said, and a deluge of
complaints from people near and far who found it difficult to believe that
the council did not have more important matters to occupy itself with.

"I am appalled at the absurdity of the recent council conduct," said the
writer of one e-mail message, Lillian Scoyen, a 53-year resident. "Not for
the way you talk to each other, but that you try to control the way you
look at each other!" The five women and four men on the council are not
far apart philosophically, city officials said, but not since the 1960's,
when the city was deeply divided over how big and fast it should grow,
have council members been so overtly unpleasant to one another.

Some of the trouble started after the last election, when three newcomers,
including Mr. Morton, joined the council. The assistant city manager,
Emily Harrison, said there had been rough moments getting the new members
up to speed. "It's not rocket science," Ms. Harrison said. "But there is
the need for basics, including how do you behave at a meeting." Ms.
Harrison said the arguments and infighting, which were absent from
tonight's meeting, had sometimes rendered the council incapable of making

"There has been a constant level of impatience," she said. "When you have
different personalities, things can break down very quickly." Some council
members readily admit that relations have not always been good, but Mr.
Burch said Palo Alto had come to reflect a broader problem with
government. "There is a terrible lack of trust in government at every
level of society these days," he said. "This is a convenient place to
express that frustration. I think it is a societal problem in some ways
and we are just a part of it."

Steven Staiger, the historian for the Palo Alto Historical Association,
said residents had long been subjected to kidding about their smarts,
wealth and comforts. There have been jokes about parents with doctorate
degrees debating one another at elementary school PTA meetings. There was
once a local theater troupe, Mr. Staiger said, that performed skits about
the "deliberative Palo Alto process." "You bring an issue, you debate it
to death, you bring in experts, you bring in consultants, and you have
Ph.D.'s and chairmen of multibillion-dollar corporations arguing over
points that two intelligent junior high school students could have solved
for you," he said.

Councilwoman Nancy Lytle said part of the difficulty now was that many
people in Palo Alto have had trouble adjusting to the shift from that
consensus-building style to the newer approach that encourages more
confrontation. In the past year, for example, Ms. Lytle said, about a
third of the council votes have been divided, something virtually unheard
of a few years ago. "We are entering into an era where we are disagreeing
on occasion in Palo Alto," she said. "We may all need to have thicker

Liz Kniss, a former mayor who is now a county supervisor, said the idea of
regulating body language was not a good one, but she suggested relations
might improve among council members if everyone exhibited a little more
self-control. "I bite my tongue a lot," Ms. Kniss said.

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