By Charles Sercombe
An ongoing dispute over adopting a policy on renaming streets in honor of very special people is threatening to do long-lasting damage among city officials.
The city council was poised to vote on a new policy at Tuesday’s regular meeting, but the meeting fell apart when Councilmembers Andrea Karpinski and Robert Zwolak suddenly walked out.
Their walkout caused a lack of a quorum, which meant there could be no vote.
For about two months the council has gone back and forth on drawing up a policy. The debate has divided the council along ethnic lines, with Bengali councilmembers on one side, and non-Bengali members on the other.
Besides Karpinski and Zwolak, Councilmember Titus Walters has opposed the policy being supported by the Bengali councilmembers. That created a 3-3 tie on accepting changes to the policy, which required Mayor Karen Majewski to vote. She has consistently voted against changes proposed by the Bengali councilmembers.
But in recent weeks, that balance has tipped in favor of the Bengali councilmembers with the absence of Walters, who is suffering from health problems.
A policy was originally drawn up by Emergency Manager Cathy Square and submitted by City Clerk August Gitschlag. That policy made it a rigorous process to grant an honorific street name.
But with the absence of Walters, the Bengali councilmembers rewrote the policy to make it a simple majority of the council to approve, as opposed to at least a 5/7ths majority, removed the mayor from the voting process and allowed international figures to be considered for an honorary designation.
That outraged the non-Bengali councilmembers, who accused the Bengali councilmembers of taking advantage of Walters’ absence to ram through their changes.
At least one councilmember, Abu Musa, is a member of one of three Bengali political organizations seeking to rename part of Caniff in honor of a Bangladesh president who turned his nation into a one-party state andwas eventually removed in a military coup and executed.
Councilmember Zwolak had asked the Bengali councilmembers to hold off from the vote at Tuesday’s meeting because Councilmember Walters was absent.
The Bengali councilmembers refused, and that’s when Zwolak and Karpinski stood up and left the council chambers.
The remaining Bengali councilmembers were outraged.
“Shame, shame you guys,” Councilmember Mohammed Hassan said.
“Now we see politics,” said Councilmember Musa.
Where this leaves the matter is up in the air. Attending the meeting was newly-hired City Manager Katrina Powell, who could pull the issue off the table before another meeting.
At press time on Thursday, Powell did not return a request to comment on the matter.
There is one more council meeting this month, on Dec. 23. If the policy is still on the agenda and Councilmember Walters is present, the big question is: Will the Bengali councilmembers walk out to prevent a vote that will likely kill the policy?
On Wednesday, the day after the council meeting, The Review called Councilmember Anam Miah to pose that scenario, but he declined to talk about the matter before that question could be asked.
The practice of councilmembers walking out of council meetings in order to prevent a vote is not a new tactic.
It was last seen in the 1990s during the contentious Gary Zych era when he was mayor. His supporters and detractors on council frequently walked out on meetings to thwart voting.
It led to an eventual stalemate where the council could not even agree to pass a budget. That forced the state to appoint an emergency financial manager to take control of the city.
At the same time, voters approved a new city charter that took management control away from the mayor and council and created a city manager position to take over those duties.
It’s not clear why Emergency Manager Cathy Square, who drew up the initial policy, didn’t use her authority to adopt it without council’s interference.