Treatment of some JPs seem unfair, patriarchal
I have been attending Washington County Quorum Court meetings for the last couple of years. An uncomfortable pattern has emerged, made obvious by virtual participation, that threatens to persist beyond the use of Zoom. Minority-party women justices of the peace are talked over, their questions are ignored, raised hands go unacknowledged, and they are regularly cut off or muted when speaking. The rules of conduct simply are not applied equally to all members of the court.
The parliamentarian and committee chairman often remind JPs of rules set out in the county code, such as each JP has two 10-minute openings to speak on any one subject. Rules and structure are necessary for the orderly conduct of meetings.
During the April 15 meeting, while questioning speakers, a JP spoke one time for over 17 minutes. The parliamentarian did not stop him, yet I have watched the minority-party women JPs being stopped if they exceeded the time limit or interrupted in other ways outside of the rules.
Take the example of the April 5 Budget and Finance Committee meeting. While questioning Fayetteville Housing Authority representatives, JP Evelyn Rios-Stafford asked "Why are some landlords refusing to sign and return necessary paperwork so the agency could pay their tenants' rent?" A fair question, one I was wondering myself, yet the male chairman jumped in before the speaker could answer, saying: "I don't know that that's an appropriate question."
Does any one JP have the authority to dictate whether another JP's question is "appropriate" when the question is asked in good faith and a respectful manner in adherence with the rules? JP Rios-Stafford was effectively shut down.
Compare that to the April 15 meeting where the JP spoke one time for over 17 minutes. His questions ran from "Do you think that vegetation was adequate?" to "Do you feel like there has been any significant drop-off in the opposition to this expansion?" These are questions of the same nature as JP Rios-Stafford's, asking for an opinion or supposition on the subject at hand. No one stopped him, no one interrupted and no one asked if his questions were appropriate.
The stark difference in how the rules are applied to minority women JPs on the court creates an unhealthy culture that comes across to the community as misogynistic and patriarchal. I do not believe this inequity is intended, but that does not make it any less divisive. We can see that in how the JPs interact with each other and the partisan posturing that occurs. The culture of the court has broken down significantly just in the two years that I've been watching.
When some JPs are counted out, held to different standards or flat out silenced, the court begins to lose legitimacy and public trust erodes, which hurts everyone. This prevailing atmosphere of the court can change if our elected officials want it to change, and I have to hope that they do for the good of the community they represent.