Our View: Dennis censure demanded greater transparency
Still, we have little reason to doubt the truth of the allegations. Dennis has a confrontational edge, and anyone who has witnessed her at work would likely give her poor marks for getting along.
For the past several weeks, the Rochester City Council has been making headlines statewide – and not for the kind of news that shows our city in a good light.
During the council's regular meeting on March 6, council president Brooke Carlson called for an unscheduled recess. When the meeting reconvened, a new item appeared on the agenda; namely, a resolution to formally censure and punish Molly Dennis, who is in her first term representing Ward 6.
Some of Dennis' alleged behaviors include:
- “Unwillingness to respect personal boundaries, along with persistent verbal intimidation toward staff and elected officials”
- “Intimidating physical behaviors and escalated physical behaviors during times of disagreement”
- “Threatening and manipulative behaviors exercised toward City staff and elected officials”
We have little reason to doubt the veracity of these allegations. Dennis has a confrontational edge to her, and anyone who has witnessed her interactions with council members and/or city staff would likely give her poor marks for getting along with others.
Nevertheless, we have several concerns about the way the censure process was handled, as well as the punishment that Dennis received.
First, the process. It seems unlikely – impossible, even – that the formal censure resolution was drawn up on the spur of the moment during that unscheduled recess on March 6. So, we can conclude that at least one member of the council knew of this document's existence before the meeting convened.
Dennis, however, appears to have been publicly ambushed.
We see no reason why the censure resolution couldn't have been on the regular agenda, if only to give Dennis an opportunity to prepare a defense, or at least to be emotionally braced for the verbal flogging she would receive. Perhaps she would have opted to skip the meeting entirely if she'd known what was coming. The surprise made for interesting theater, but a city council should try to avoid such drama, rather than actively creating it.
Our next area of concern is the lack of specifics in what we'll call the “charging document.” Anyone with any experience in supervising, disciplining and potentially firing an employee knows that documentation is everything. Typically, a problematic employee is put on notice and receives an action plan for correcting their behavior. Any failure to follow that plan is carefully documented. If and when that employee is disciplined or fired, the employer can cite specific examples of misconduct or failure to meet expectations.
The censure resolution describes a pattern of behavior by Dennis but offers just one specific date of “elevated and unproductive behavior.” We don't know where and when she allegedly threatened city staff. We don't know what kind of “intimidating physical behaviors” she exhibited. No examples of “excessive use of City time and resources” are given.
We need more information. The public — especially voters in Ward 6 — needs to see a documented pattern of behavior that warrants action against an elected official.
That brings us to our third area of concern; namely, the punishment Dennis received from her colleagues.
Dennis is the fourth member of the Rochester City Council to be censured. In the previous three cases, the council had very specific, well-documented grounds for taking action, and in each case the punishment went no further than the resolution itself. The offending council members essentially received a public, on-the-record scolding from their peers, and then everyone moved on.
Dennis received a harsher sentence. Any meetings she has with city staff for the rest of this year must be virtual. She can communicate directly only with the highest-ranking city employees, and she must email them (no phone calls), with a copy sent to the city administrator. And, interestingly, when speaking to the public, she must “make it clear that the opinions being expressed are her own and not necessarily representative of the City's position.”
The city council's “Rules of Procedure & Code of Conduct,” which was adopted in 2021, states that discipline for a misbehaving council member “may include, but is not limited to, a verbal admonition, public reprimand, and expulsion from the meeting in which the conduct is occurring.”
While the above policy opens the door for the council to craft whatever punishment it sees fit, we would have preferred to see the council use all of the methods mentioned above before going off-book. If Dennis had been expelled from a meeting or two for misconduct, perhaps she would have gotten the message. At the very least, a couple expulsions (especially with video cameras running) would have documented her misconduct.
Instead, the council opted to handcuff an elected official, to make it more difficult for her to represent the people who voted her into office. Given the lack of specific evidence, we don't think the punishment fits the crime — and it penalizes Ward 6, too.
It's worth noting that throughout its history, the Rochester City Council has had no shortage of what we'll call “characters.” Some were sent packing after one term, while others enjoyed long tenures on the council by challenging the status quo, fighting for pet causes, tilting at windmills and shining a spotlight into corners of government that might otherwise have remained dark.
Ward 6 voters chose Molly Dennis. They are the ones who will evaluate her effectiveness, and ultimately they will determine whether she is -- as we have reviewed the evidence and found -- an unproductive rabble-rouser, or she is a useful watchdog.