Local Commentary

Editorial: Bullying on the City Council

Falls Church City Councilman Dave Snyder may have thought he was serving the public interest, but in his comments regarding, in particular, City Manager Wyatt Shields in last week’s Council meeting, preceding his “no” vote on Shields’ compensation package, he came across like a schoolyard bully.

He dropped his “bomb,” assailing Shields on an array of performance issues late in the meeting, to the complete surprise of other Council members and in a context that did not permit rejoinders or a debate over the veracity and significance of his points.

The need to have an open and frank discussion of the merits of Council member perceptions of the performance of the city’s manager, attorney, clerk and other city personnel is precisely why state law stipulates such discussions can, and ought to, take place in meetings closed to the public and the media. As much as we advocate, as a newspaper representing the public’s “right to know,” on behalf of “sunshine laws,” transparency and open government, we respect and support the necessary decorum involved in government’s protecting private discussions of often sensitive personnel matters.

According to Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, Snyder had plenty of opportunities to raise his concerns in such closed sessions, or even in other contexts, with fellow Council members, but never did.

Snyder has expressed before his concerns for some of the issues he raised last week, involving the city’s legal strategy, its economic direction and its temporarily-lapsed police department accreditation. But it was a different matter entirely for him to do so during a vote on Shields’ annual salary compensation. As Mayor Gardner pointed out, most of the matters Snyder raised dated to before the time Shields took over as city manager late last year.

In a strong rejoinder at the conclusion of Snyder’s remarks, Mayor Gardner said bringing up the subjects in a public meeting, and not in private,  was “out of line” and “unprofessional.” “I am embarrassed for the Council,” she said, and “dismayed.”

Moreover, she noted, because of the context of last week’s meeting, none of the issues could be fleshed out. Snyder delivered what some call a “cheap shot,” leaving the youngest city manager in the history of Falls Church, barely half a year on his job, without recourse but to sit there and take it. If that scene did not have all the too-predictable hallmarks of schoolyard bullying, most often called in the political realm “demagoguery,” we don’t know what would.

Snyder’s often-dissenting voice on the current Council, drawing on his now 13 years’ experience on the body, including one term as mayor in the 1998-2000 time period, has frequently been constructive and insightful even when we, ourselves, have disagreed with him. But last week’s episode, in our view, tarnished his credibility.