Recall's roots in council prayer

November 20, 2001 12:00 am
City Councilor Gary Dielman is the target of a recall campaign. ().
City Councilor Gary Dielman is the target of a recall campaign. ().


Of the Baker City Herald

Baker City Councilor Gary Dielman has at least one thing in common with John DeShiro, the man leading the effort to recall him from the council.

Both emphasize that the Dec. 18 mail-in election to decide Dielmans fate is not about religion and prayer.

But even if the election itself is a purely political matter, its roots certainly do spring from the realm of religion.

The seed is the City Councils longtime practice of starting its meetings with a Christian invocation.

Dielman, who was elected to the council November 1998, believes those prayers are unconstitutional, an affront to the United States traditional concept of separating matters of church and state.

He believes a person, not the government, should decide when to pray.

I just cannot abide the fact that the City Council divides us into those who want to pray and those who dont want to pray at every meeting, Dielman said. Its mixing government and religion.

DeShiro believes the councils invocations, which are voluntary, also are legal.

He says Dielman should be recalled for refusing to accept that two times a majority of the seven-member council has voted to continue the invocations.

On the recall petition he filed in early August, DeShiro wrote that he believes Dielman is wasting his time, and ours, on the Baker City Council. Prayer is no longer an issue for any councilor except Mr. Dielman.

Dielman denies he is wasting anyones time.

He said the council has spent comparatively little time debating the issue during its meetings. In fact, Dielman believes the council hasnt discussed the matter enough in public hes angry because the second time the council voted to continue starting its meetings with prayers, there was no discussion before the vote.

Cause against Dielman

DeShiro cites two incidents he believes illustrate his claim that Dielmans protests against the invocations have disrupted council meetings.

The first happened May 8.

Three councilors missed the meeting that evening, meaning all four of the others, including Dielman, had to be present to constitute a quorum. Without a quorum, the council cant conduct any official business.

Dielman was present, but he waited outside council chambers for about 20 minutes that evening. The meeting, which normally begins at 7:30, started about 7:55.

Dielman said he waited outside because he didnt intend to fill the quorum requirement if the meeting was going to start with an invocation.

He said that after Mayor Nancy Shark called for the invocation and it had taken place, he decided to take his seat, which allowed the meeting to officially begin.

The second incident and the one DeShiro said convinced him to file the recall petition occurred during the councils June 26 meeting.

The council was scheduled to vote on an ordinance that boosted building permit fees.

To approve an ordinance the council has to vote on three separate readings, a process that takes at least two meetings.

The city charter states that if all the councilors agree, they can vote on the first and second readings at one meeting.

In most cases the council does so, then votes on the final reading at the next meeting, after which the ordinance takes effect.

But on June 26, after the council voted for the first reading, Dielman refused to allow the second.

That meant the council had to schedule at least two more meetings, because the city charter prohibits the council from voting on both the second and third readings during a single meeting.

Dielman said he had two reasons for blocking the second reading.

First, because the ordinance raised fees, he wanted to give citizens as much time as possible to comment.

Second, Dielman said he was still angry about Sharks decision during an earlier meeting to call for a vote on whether to continue invocations, even though the issue wasnt listed on the agenda.

That vote, which was not scheduled on the meeting agenda, happened at the end of the meeting under the heading of Other Business, with no discussion beforehand.

She did that on purpose, and I didnt like it, Dielman said.

DeShiro said Dielmans decision to block the second reading during the June 26 meeting bothered him not only because he considered it an act of revenge that wasted the councils time, but because the delay in boosting permit fees cost the city about $2,300.

Thats the amount the city would have collected had the council put in place the higher fees earlier by voting on the first and second readings June 26, and the final reading at its first meeting in July.

But Dielman pointed out that the council could have scheduled a special meeting as soon as June 27 to vote on the second reading, in which case the fee increase would have taken effect as scheduled.

The council didnt do so, but, Dielman said, Im the one that gets the blame for (the lost fee revenue).

Fee issue triggers recall

DeShiro said that after the June 26 meeting, he decided Dielman deserved to be recalled for using his vote as a weapon against the other councilors.

Until then, DeShiro said, he hadnt planned to mount a recall campaign in part because he doesnt care what Gary personally believes about prayer or religion.

DeShiro said he actually thinks Dielman was serving as a good role model by asking whether the councils meeting-opening invocations were legal.

But DeShiro said he reviewed the court cases Dielman has cited, as well as other legal opinions, and that he is comfortable the city is legal in continuing to open council meetings with a prayer.

DeShiro said he believes such a prayer is constitutional, as long as its not used to advance or proselytize any religion.

DeShiro said he doesnt think the type of invocation the council has promotes any religious belief, but rather solemnizes the occasion.

Dielman acknowledges that the legality of the councils invocations probably wont be decided decisively unless a judge rules on the matter. He said he has considered, but not decided, whether to file a lawsuit.

Its a very big decision to sue your own city, said Dielman, 62, who grew up in Baker City.

But he contends that whether the invocations are legal or not, they are discriminatory to any citizen who doesnt want to participate, either because the person opposes prayers at public meetings or is not a Christian.

Most, but not all, of the local clergy members invited to lead the invocations have ended their prayers with the words, in Jesus name.

Dielman has said he is not satisfied with Sharks handling of his concern. The mayor, when announcing the invocation, states that anyone who wishes to join the prayer can stand.

Even though Shark says participation in the invocations is voluntary, Dielman said he believes some citizens who dont want to stand for the prayer may do so anyway because they fear the council would treat them differently if they remain seated.

No residents have ever told the council they felt that way, but Dielman said he doubts any citizen would feel comfortable stating such a complaint.

No compromise possible?

DeShiro said he started to change his mind about Dielmans actions after Dielman continued to protest the invocations after the council voted for the second time to continue the practice.

A good role model understands that when the other members (of the council) disagree, you honor the vote, DeShiro said. You dont keep fighting it once the vote is taken.

DeShiro said some city residents have suggested he meet with Dielman to try to forge a compromise.

DeShiro doesnt think thats possible.

Gary is not willing to find a middle ground to work on, DeShiro said. Gary wants no prayer at City Council meetings. How do you compromise with someone who doesnt want to give?

But Dielman said he believes he has a responsibility to continue challenging a practice he considers illegal and unfair to some of our citizens.

If people didnt continue to protest slavery and the subjugation of women, wed still have slavery and women wouldnt be allowed to vote, he said. You dont stop protesting something just because someone else says its OK.

Although he is confident voters will recall Dielman, DeShiro said he wishes Dielman had resigned.

DeShiro said he didnt want the matter to be decided in an election that will cost the city an estimated $5,700.

But now that that election is a certainty, DeShiro said that Citizens for Responsible Government, the political action committee of which he is treasurer, will conduct an active campaign.

The effort may include radio, television and print ads, and direct mailings, he said.

I think its necessary to have a campaign, DeShiro said. I dont think the average voter knows what the issue really is. Its about a city councilor who thinks he needs to hold the rest of the council hostage because a vote didnt go his way.

Dielman, who also plans an advertising campaign, said he doesnt want the city to absorb the cost of an election, either. But he believes DeShiro and the voters who signed the recall petition are responsible for that cost.

Im sorry its coming to this, Dielman said. I wish the City Council had seen fit to come up with some kind of compromise.

He said he would support replacing the invocation with a moment of silence, an idea others have suggested, including City Councilor Beverly Calder, who was the only council member other than Dielman to vote against a motion to continue starting meetings with a prayer.

The council never has voted on the moment of silence proposal.

Theres one other thing Dielman and DeShiro agree on: A recall election creates publicity harmful to Baker Citys reputation.

I think this is going to make us look bad, Dielman said. That someone is being recalled because he opposes prayer at a City Council meeting.

DeShiro also worries that the election will sully the citys reputation.

Its creating division in the community, he said. But the source of that division is Gary Dielman.

Recall ballots will be mailed Nov. 30, County Clerk Tami Green said.