Board struggles to cope with rogue member | September 20, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

Opinion - September 20, 2013

Board struggles to cope with rogue member

Most public bodies operate under rules which govern how legislation is introduced and approved, and sets policy on decorum, giving whoever is acting as chairperson the authority to run the meeting and recognize members of the body to speak.

Unfortunately, at the Mountain View Whisman school board, frustrated president Ellen Wheeler and her colleagues have been unable to use the rules to handle the often out-of-control antics of member Steve Nelson, who frequently refuses to stop his long and repetitive monologues, which can stymie the board for extended periods on an issue that only Nelson supports.

Clearly frustrated, Wheeler said last week that board members Chris Chiang and Bill Lambert are drafting a motion to censure Nelson, whom in addition to disrupting meetings has sent harsh emails to staff and shouted at administrators when visiting the district office. At press time, a Voice Public Records Act request for copies of the emails that Nelson sent to district officials had not been fulfilled, but a comment from Wheeler does not paint a pretty picture.

"People come up to me all the time to complain about the behavior of Steven Nelson as a board member," Wheeler said.

Nelson himself admits that some of his behavior has been offensive to some board members and administrators, although he said some of it may be due to his personal style.

"I would have avoided these conflicts if I could," he said. "It's hard to change some habits you get into with personal style." That style was apparently developed as he was campaigning for the board seat in the November 2012 election and before, when he often would appear before the board as a private citizen. He strongly opposed $198 million bond issue to upgrade schools passed by voters last year, and has disagreed strongly with the administration of Superintendent Craig Goldeman.

During the campaign, and even today, Nelson often brings homemade charts to illustrate his position as he delivers long monologues to the board, sometimes continuing after being asked to end his remarks and sit down. At his first meeting after he was elected, Nelson and Wheeler became embroiled in a loud discussion and during that meeting Nelson repeatedly cut off Wheeler and fellow board members who were attempting to make comments.

Nelson admits he sometimes is too enthusiastic in his disagreements with the district. During his campaign, he promised he would challenge district officials if elected.

"It's been rough," he acknowledged to the Voice. "I think I've overstepped," when asked for his thoughts about the possible censure motion.

We fully agree that Nelson has "overstepped." In case he has forgotten, virtually all government bodies in this country operate under majority rule, which means that each member must bow to the majority if he or she loses or is dissatisfied with a vote.

At the 2012 election Nelson surprised many observers when he finished second among the three winners, less than 1,000 votes behind Chiang and more than 1,000 ahead of Lambert. Perhaps voters mistakenly thought his already well-known disagreements with the board in public testimony was a good quality, an assessment that unfortunately has turned out to be very wrong.

Sadly, unless Nelson can accept his losses and move on, the board is likely to be preoccupied with more of his grandstanding for some time to come. And censure is not the right tool for the job, but other than recall, it is the only way the board can publicly make a collective statement about its dissatisfaction with Nelson.

If he really cares about educating the children of the Mountain View Whisman district, Nelson will drop his grandstanding role and work cooperatively with the rest of the board. By staying within the rules, he can gain the respect of his colleagues and show his constituents that they did not make a mistake when they elected him last November.