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Our View: Dispute over charter reveals much about power

Students at City Council meeting
Leah Folpe, a senior at Mayo High School, advocates for gender-neutral language in the Rochester city charter at the City Council meeting Monday. A motion to make the change in the city charter failed Monday, blocked by Council Member Mark Hickey’s "no" vote, but Hickey said Tuesday he has changed his mind and will vote in favor of the change next month.
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The dust-up at Monday’s Rochester City Council meeting over gender-neutral language in the city charter offered, if nothing else, a fascinating view of the varieties of power at play in local politics.

First was a demonstration of the power of thought and organization by young people against powerful traditions of bias.

High school students Anna Kirkland, Alina Hyder, Martha Burkett and Leah Folpe, members of a Youth Action Committee that has been engaged in a year-long effort to remove any gendered language in the charter, spoke first.

Folpe delivered a truncated version of a column she wrote for the Post Bulletin that explained the ways masculine pronouns have been used to promulgate sexism as far back as the 15th century, when Latin grammarians determined the masculine gender more worthy than the feminine.

"When we constantly read ‘he’ as the gender-neutral pronoun, it implies that women are not considered the norm within things like governmental roles and other things like that. It’s disheartening to read, especially if you are younger," said Kirkland. "Say some younger girl was reading the Post Bulletin to find out something for a class project and she reads (the charter), and it says ‘he’ when it refers to the mayor. That tells her that she is not included under the idea of a mayor."

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Last year, the students proposed changes to the city’s Charter Commission, which forwarded those changes to the city attorney, who’s authorized to make such changes to the document. They successfully wiped out all gender-specific language, but wanted one final change to the document. This one was substantive, so it required approval from the full council.

Section 2.03, Subdivision 3 of the city’s Home Rule Charter currently says, "In construing this charter, words and phrases in the masculine gender include the feminine and shall not indicate any bias as to sex."

The youth committee proposed this change: "In construing this charter, words and phrases shall be gender-neutral and in no way indicate any bias as to sex. If language used in the charter appears to mistakenly or purposefully favor one gender over another, it shall be assumed that the word or phrase in question includes all genders."

The council voted and the measure failed by a single negative vote, cast by Mark Hickey. He defended his vote by saying the charter is already gender-neutral, and the proposed final fix wouldn’t prevent someone from erasing it in the future.

We emphatically disagree. Words matter, and symbols matter. Even if the new wording for the charter seems unnecessary or superfluous to some, this was an opportunity to make the charter crystal-clear and make the point that Rochester city government is resolutely opposed to anything that smacks of sexism and bias.

Hickey’s vote could be generously described as a missed opportunity.

"It was disappointing, but this was the last step of our work on the home rule charter. It’s easy to forget that we already got the whole charter changed, except for this section," said Kirkland.

Fortunately, Hickey and the city will get a mulligan. After a torrent of criticism overnight Monday, Hickey reversed himself Tuesday. This perhaps points to the power of active constituents.

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"I heard from a lot of well-meaning people who thought that this meant that I was against gender-neutral language, and this has never been the case," he said. "The language does no harm and I will support it at the April 2 City Council meeting."

So, what did we all learn from this episode in local politics? We’ll give Kirkland the last word.

"The big takeaway" is that "all people are included in government," she said. "And that’s important because it’s true. The best part about government in the U.S. is the opportunity that we have to participate within it. So if we make the language that talks about government as inclusive as possible, it’ll hopefully both encourage people to be included and make those who are already within the governmental system feel more included."

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