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Feinstein Denounces Government by Lottery; Storms Out of Meeting After Losing Draw

By Erica Williams
Staff Writer

Jan. 30 -- Few heads turn when City Council members prematurely call it a night and leave a meeting early. But when Councilman Michael Feinstein, known for his stamina during lengthy late night sessions, stalked off the dais Tuesday saying he could no longer continue to work with his colleagues that night, many were stunned.

Members of the public, still waiting to be heard on funding proposals for arts and community service organizations, murmured as Feinstein coolly left the Chambers -- some even doing a double take as he walked by -- and Mayor Richard Bloom said, somewhat anticlimactically, "Well, good night then."

"I was just really shocked," said Councilman Bob Holbrook. "The level of his distress was just incredible."

The conflict that led to Feinstein's premature departure arose during deliberations to appoint three council members to the East-West Corridor Parking task force, which will explore parking issues along the city's boulevards. Holbrook, Feinstein, Herb Katz and Ken Genser expressed interest in the three slots.

Feinstein -- who ardently lobbied for his own appointment -- moved that he, Katz and Genser, be appointed, leaving Holbrook out. Holbrook said he had considered withdrawing after Genser belatedly expressed interest in serving on the task force.

But when Feinsteuin offered a slate that didn't include him, "at that point I was willing to let the chips fall where they may," Holbrook said. "I wasn't going to back out."

When the council went along with Holbrook's suggestion to draw names randomly to avoid a lengthy debate, Feinstein accused his colleagues of a "dereliction of duty" and continued to vociferously object to leaving the decision up to chance. He was ruled out of order by Mayor Richard Bloom.

The lottery, which was actually three names on slips of paper drawn from a hat, was conducted, and Feinstein was the odd man out.

As the clock inched closer to midnight and a few minutes into deliberations on the council's next agenda item, Feinstein announced that he was leaving the dais because, "I don't feel my colleagues are taking their jobs seriously."

"The bottom line is that these task force appointments are very important," Feinstein said after the meeting. "Leaving them up to chance instead of being able to make a decision is a dereliction of duty and people not taking their job seriously.

"I resent that I come to the meeting prepared to make an informed choice and my colleagues don't take their job equally as seriously," Feinstein added. "We were elected to make hard choices, including hard choices from among our colleagues and if my other colleagues don't feel they can make those choices from among each other, then I'm not sure why they're in office because the public expects that from us."

"I didn't feel in that moment that the group was capable of doing the public's business based on the cavalier manner in which the majority handled this matter," he said of his departure. "This is not about me, but about how council conducted its business."

Feinstein explained that he very much wanted to serve on the commission. After all, it was he who first brought the community concerns about the paucity of parking in the East-West corridor to his colleagues' attention when he put the idea of the task force on the agenda in January 2001 as one of his first acts as mayor.

Feinstein said he had done extensive work during the winter break studying and analyzing the issue and had pushed the council to be proactive in addressing the problem. In addition, as a member of the advisory board for the Madison Theater, he had requested that the council study the feasibility of adding parking by converting the surface lot at the site into a park above subterranean parking.

Though Feinstein stressed repeatedly that the issue was not about him failing to be appointed to the task force, he admitted that he was indeed disappointed and somewhat miffed.

"I did think it was classless to not have proactively chosen me given that I created this item," he said. "It was classless not to pay professional courtesy to a colleague who had done the work."

Feinstein said that although his action appeared spontaneous, it was something he had thought long and hard about after a similar incident.

It was about a year ago, he said, when the council first drew straws to decide who would sit on the task force for the Civic Center Plan update. Feinstein -- who lost the draw -- said he was equally appalled then. He expressed his disappointment and even discussed with others that he would be compelled to leave the dais if the council ever left such an important decision up to chance again.

The council later redeemed itself by proactively deciding appointments to the Promenade Uses task force, Feinstein said. Which made the council's backsliding Tuesday night shocking and disappointing, he said.

"Is this government by lottery?" Feinstein asked. "As a resident I'm embarrassed."

"I didn't in my wildest imagination think that we would slip back again into that trough of intellectual mediocrity by not making a choice about who should be on an important task force," Feinstein said. He added that he waited a few minutes before he decided to leave, "took measure of the evening and decided that there was no place for me in that environment."

Holbrook said he truly didn't understand the depth of Feinstein's emotions on the issue, adding that this was not the first time he's gotten emotional, but that it was the first time he'd gotten up and left.

"I was upset earlier in the evening," Holbrook said of the council's decision not to require an escalator in the design plans for the new Main Library that he subsequently voted against.

"I must've seemed crazy," Holbrook said, "but I didn't get up and leave."

Holbrook said he was offended by Feinstein's allegations that his colleagues did not take their jobs seriously. Councilmember Kevin McKeown shared the feeling.

"We all have nights when we feel ill or have uncommonly early commitments the next day," McKeown said in a statement later. "It's harder to understand leaving a Council meeting out of apparent personal pique, with funding issues for social services and the arts still to be heard, but I'm sure Mike will have a rational explanation and apologies for his colleagues."

Though most of Feinstein's colleagues were put off by his action, Council member Pam O'Connor took it in stride, indicating that in the grand scheme of things this was "not a big deal."

She'd done some calculations, O'Connor said.

"Let's see"… that's 6 hours times 60 minutes times 24 meetings a year. That works out to 8,640 minutes a year by 6 years of service = 51,840 minutes. Divide that into an hour, that's 60 minutes say, for Feinstein's absence from the rest of the meeting, that works out, "by my conservative estimate," to about .001 percent of the amount of time he missed Tuesday out of all the meetings he's attended during his time on the council.

The two minutes O'Connor estimated that Feinstein took to make his statement and leave the Chamber accounted for .00004 percent of his attendance record.

"We're doing business in a fish bowl and for that percent [of time] he had a strong opinion," O'Connor said, adding that she wasn't about to judge his comments.

"He's human," she said. "That's his reaction, and until something becomes a systemic ongoing problem, I'm not going to react to it."
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