DEMOCRACY IS a wonderful thing. More and more countries are trying it on for size.
But Vaclav Havel might have doubted the wisdom of his revolution if he had ever attended a Buffalo School Board meeting where board members rage out of control.
And it's not just the school board. Too often the behavior of elected officials at public meetings is just so . . . disappointing.
The other day, the board of directors of the Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau met.
The board's membership is huge, and no quorum was present. Chairman Elias Saba, a hotel owner, proceeded with the meeting until someone said, "Mr. Chairman, can we actually have a motion if we don't have a quorum?"
Stragglers arrived to make a quorum. Noting that procedures aren't set in stone, Saba said, "We can change them if we don't like them." The board started voting to amend the bylaws in an obscure way. Then a woman from the State Power Authority observed that no bylaws could be changed without a two-thirds vote.
It just wasn't a good day for decisive action.
But at least the Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau can look forward to getting something done when more people show up.
The Town of Genesee in Allegany County isn't so fortunate. After the last Town Board meeting, three of the five board members, including the supervisor, resigned for reasons nobody fully understands.
How will the town of 1,650 govern itself?
"I don't know. That's what we're all wondering," said Janet Smith, Genesee's former town clerk.
But those meetings are tame compared with the Buffalo School Board's unforgettable sessions.
Judith Fisher, as board president, sits composed at the head of the table like a substitute kindergarten teacher. One day she'll forget herself and scold, "Now, children."
But her charges have her all figured out.
Frank Jager, East District member, sometimes plays the class clown, as during a recent debate when he pulled out a white handkerchief, waved it in people's faces and smiled at the crowd to see how many were laughing at his joke.
John Doyle, at-large member, looks bored between moments when he can raise key issues. At a meeting last month he ordered the school administration to find out why school buses don't drive all the way down the cul-de-sac near where he lives.
Oscar Smukler, North District member, sometimes kills time and gets ahead on his filing by carefully and quite audibly ripping dozens of sheets of paper in half while other board members are speaking.
Featured near the beginning of each meeting is Smukler's report on the board's executive committee. Smukler usually manages to keep his reports pedantic and circumlocutory, far from controversy. But at the Nov. 14 meeting, he and fellow committee members could not agree on what they had done a few hours before.
Mozella Richardson (usually soft-spoken Central District member): Excuse me, is that what we did? I thought it was something else.
Smukler: I don't think so, I stand to be corrected, but I thought after we had sifted everything out . . .
Richardson (shuffling papers): No, no, we didn't sift anything out. What we discussed was bringing to the board . . . I'm trying to get the words, wait a minute, let me get my notes. Today wasn't my day. I should have stayed at home in the first place. We talked about it. And we talked first about bringing to the board, where is this thing we were gonna to bring to the board to vote on? Not this. How was it, Mrs. Blackman?
Bettye Blackman (well-behaved Ferry District member): I thought we were going to bring to the board the separation of duties.
Smukler: The separation of duties is included in this particular motion . . .
Richardson: I've been screwed again.
(Smukler's voice switches from its customary low somnolent range to the higher pitch he uses for lashing out.)
Smukler: Well, I'll withdraw it, and I don't like you saying that, Mrs. Richardson. . . . I don't like you saying that I screwed you.
Fisher: Excuse me.
Smukler: And that does require an apology, Mrs. Richardson.
Richardson: No, no, not from me, not tonight.
Smukler: Well I wouldn't expect it from you Mrs. Richardson.
Fisher: DR. SMUKLER AND MRS. RICHARDSON!
Smukler: We'll write things out, Mrs. Richardson. Hopefully you'll be able to stay here with me and we'll write it out to make sure that you understand and that I understand so we won't have to go around telling other people that they got screwed. Let me assure you I have never done that to any board member, and especially to you.
At least nobody sleeps through school board meetings. The Common Council is another story.
At a recent meeting, a Channel 7 cameraman was fast asleep in the corner. He looked childlike, fetal. Fillmore Council Member David Franczyk and South Council Member Brian Higgins beamed benignly at the fallen journalist, while their colleagues debated some motion or other. "No pictures on Channel 7 tonight," Franczyk said.
But the cameraman should be pardoned. This was a dreadfully dull Council meeting.
Ellicott Council Member James Pitts tried to liven things up by regularly joshing Common Council President George Arthur.
"You're not a lawyer yet," Pitts would say, "even though you read 'Rumpole of the Old Bailey.' "
Arthur, happy with his job of repeating into the microphone the scores of housekeeping items on the agenda, would grasp these jokes after a short delay, and he would guffaw as the humor broke over him like a slow wave.
One interesting spat erupted between Pitts and Council Majority Leader Eugene Fahey. But it seemed a private duel, the kind where elected officials draw phony public battle lines to cover hidden political differences. Fahey was attacking the bidding process on a housing development Pitts likes, and Pitts in turn called for scrutiny of the bidding process on a project involving Fahey's wife.
Later, Pitts and Fahey, who sit next to each other, were allies in trying to end the tedious meeting as soon as possible.
But not before the Council waded through dozens of items, like paying for a voter's Chevrolet that the city auctioned off by mistake, and reimbursing a woman after police recovered her stolen car and unwisely returned the keys to the thief, who promptly stole it again.
The County Legislature wasn't much better.
Leonard Lenihan, D-Town of Tonawanda, must know his Marc Antony. The budget committee chairman stood up at a leaden budget hearing, mustered an irony worthy of "Brutus is an honorable man" and said:
"If it's one thing the people are sick of, it's politics first and governance second. Let's forget the politics and govern."
This was right after he had dashed out of the hearing -- completely missing the presentations by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and a loud man from Lackawanna's Sewer District 6 -- to stand in front of television cameras and needle Republicans.
It was only fair, because he was fending off equally political jabs regarding the budget from Minority Leader Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville. After one camera interviewed him, then Rath, Lenihan asked for rebuttal time.
Meanwhile, assorted groups made pleas for money while legislators walked in and out of the room, joked with each other or looked bored.
Only Buffalo Democrats Michael Fitzpatrick and Thomas Mazur actually yawned. David Manz, D-Buffalo, seemed to share private amusing remarks with everyone in reach.
The climax was a legislative temper tantrum by Ralph Mohr, R-Lancaster, and G. Stephen Pigeon, D-West Seneca, over county roads.
Mohr (jabbing the air and roaring): "I'll tell you, I am really pissed off. You know what you're doing is targeting Republican and rural towns."
Pigeon (jabbing the air and roaring): "It's untrue. You know it's not true."