Pat Napoleon addresses City Council to say she can't understand one of its members.
Satyendra Huja acknowledges that he has an accent, and says he's trying to do better.
PHOTO BY HOOK STAFF
It was business as usual during public comment at the July 18 City Council meeting, until one citizen veered from typical issues, such as the Meadowcreek Parkway and the water plan, to raise a new concern, one that stunned councilors and led to accusations of xenophobia, government stifling of free speech, and a parliamentary vote of confidence.
City Council regular Pat Napoleon had finished her comments about the Parkway and used the rest of her three minutes to address another matter:
"I must relay a serious concern relating to a sitting member of Council," said Napoleon. "Others and I have been unable to understand Mr. [Satyendra] Huja's comments at City Council meetings and forums for years. It is the right of citizens to hear and comprehend what is going on during official meetings."
Huja, former Charlottesville director of strategic planning, worked for the city for 27 years and was instrumental in creating the Charlottesville of today with its Downtown Mall, flowers, and trees. He was born in India 69 years ago, elected to City Council in 2007, and seeks a second term at the August 20 Democratic firehouse primary.
Napoleon suggests that any elected officials who could not be understood should hire a translator at their own expense.
"It is crucial citizens understand all that is discussed," said Napoleon, as she opened a floodgate of criticism.
Ten minutes later, former Nature Conservancy head Ridge Schuyler declared, "I was offended by the comments about Mr. Huja, and I do not share them, and I think a lot of people don't share them; and I find them offensive."
"I agree," said Mayor Dave Norris.
"We don't normally have such xenophobic comments," said Councilor Kristin Szakos, apologizing to a delegation of visiting Afghani women. "I'm embarrassed."
"I also do not support the sentiments expressed," echoed Councilor Holly Edwards, who called for a measure more usually seen in the British Parliament than in American local government: a vote of confidence for Huja. Council unanimously approved the vote, which was followed by applause.
That was not the end of the matter.
At the August 1 meeting, resident Richard Statman read the First Amendment and reminded councilors that citizen comments are protected speech and councilors "should never hint at a climate of restraining free speech or characterize public comments in a way that silences First Amendment protections," he said.
"The greatest threat to free speech," continued Statman, "is the government, whose representatives seek to impose, control, or guide the general discourse for what they believe is the public good."
Napoleon returned to the podium to complain that her concerns about not fully understanding Huja had been "inaccurately, improperly and unjustifiably" mischaracterized by Szakos as xenophobic– the fear or hatred of foreigners.
"I did not make any personal attacks, any type of reference to accent, etcetera," said Napoleon, who, a few days after the meeting, is still steamed about being labeled a xenophobe.
"I think she was trying to intimidate me," says Napoleon.
And Szakos' opinion?
"It was certainly rude," says Szakos, though she adds that she will be more mindful about remarks from the councilors' dais that could be seen as stifling free speech.
"I think the fact that someone has an accent shouldn't disqualify them from public office," says Szakos, while acknowledging that Huja can sometimes be hard to understand.
It turns out that Napoleon wasn't the first to point that out. Taped to the back of Huja's nameplate on the dais are three words in block letters, "SLOW AND CLEAR."
"I do have an accent," says Huja. "I'm trying to do better."
Huja says he regrets that Napoleon was unable to understand him, but he also felt an uncomfortable overtone in the remarks. "Her tone," he says, "was very unpleasant."
He also questions the timing, coming a month before the August 20 firehouse primary– and the Hook doing a story about the issue.
"I think it casts doubt on my ability to be a city councilor," he says. "Most people understand me fairly well. I've been doing public speaking the last 38 years in Charlottesville. I do the best I can."
Mayor Norris thinks it was Napoleon's suggestion to get a translator that made councilors see it as a reflection on Huja's ethnicity.
"In that moment, we all took Pat's comments in a way she didn't intend," says Norris, adding, "I've never questioned Mr. Huja's ability to serve this community."
The vote of confidence was a first in Norris' experience on Council. "I wasn't sure what it meant," says Norris, although he voted for it.
Norris says that he later asked Holly Edwards, who did not return a phone call from the Hook, about the vote of confidence, and she said she'd seen it done at a Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority meeting after its director, Tom Frederick, had been lambasted by a speaker.
"Misguided," is how another Council regular, Richard Lloyd, describes the vote of confidence. In a representative democracy, elected members don't affirm themselves, explains Lloyd. That's done by the voters."Huja represents the people; he doesn't represent the Council," says Lloyd.
Huja has improved his clarity, says Lloyd, who wonders what Council is going to do about this now-admitted comprehension situation.
"It would be nice," says Lloyd, "if they said 'If you don't understand, please raise your hand.'"