MISSOULA — A perennial political candidate’s insistence on the resignation of Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin Copple after Copple’s reference to “those of us who don’t have penises” has gone unheeded – so Kandi Matthew-Jenkins has filed a “hate crime and bias” report at City Hall.
“Since Missoula passed the diversity/anti-discrimination code I would think that a city council person would refrain from this kind of statement, considering the implications full of gender bias against men,” wrote Matthew-Jenkins in her complaint.
In a legal opinion, however, the city attorney disagreed the allegations constitute discrimination.
Copple made the remark in question at a meeting where the Missoula City Council discussed ordinance amendments dealing with pedestrian safety in the city center: “When we hear from opponents that we’re just a bunch of privileged white people, those of us who don’t have penises may have a little bit of a different experience.”
In the March 17 report, Matthew-Jenkins alleges the comment violates the U.S. and Montana constitutions and breaches city code. On Thursday, Matthew-Jenkins said she is still waiting to be contacted by a city official, as she requested in the incident report.
“Personally, I was very offended at Ms. Copple’s remarks, considering I am married to a man and am a mother of three young men that Ms. Copple seems to have lumped in with certain men (it can only be men she is speaking about because to date they are the only PEOPLE who have penises) who are homeless, disabled or suffer from addictions which in itself is discrimination against those less fortunate …
“I have since requested that Ms. Copple resign from her city council seat for the … violation of her oath of office, to no avail and am now forced to formalize my complaint with the proper authority.”
Councilwoman Copple declined to comment on the allegations.
In a March 18 legal opinion, however, city attorney Jim Nugent said Copple’s comments do not appear to be constitutional violations, and Matthew-Jenkins isn’t eligible to launch a recall attempt since she lives in a different ward than Copple.
“The city council member comments do not violate any discrimination law,” Nugent wrote. “The city council member did not refuse, withhold or deny anything from anyone based on their protected class status.”
Matthew-Jenkins, who comments frequently at council meetings, had voiced her complaints against Copple for weeks. Her strident tone and direct attack on Copple concerned some council members, including council president Marilyn Marler and councilman Alex Taft, who has cited a council rule that calls for order at the meetings.
The rules mandate decorum from council members, the mayor, staff and members of the public “to maintain a productive atmosphere and the integrity of governmental business.
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“Comments may indicate a concern for an issue ... (but) may not include use of loud, threatening or abusive language, ” reads a portion of the rules.
Matthew-Jenkins, though, said she never meant to intimidate Copple, and she said the Ward 4 representative isn’t “incapable of working hard.” At the same time, Matthew-Jenkins said she will not be deprived of her right to free speech.
“If my tone affects people, maybe that’s because I worked really, really hard all my life raising kids to get that tone,” Matthew-Jenkins said. “You can’t run a house with six children without getting a tone or an attitude. And I do tend to bring that tone and attitude to it because that’s just who I am. I’m an adamant person, and I’m a sincere person, and I’m a constitutional person.”
Mayor John Engen runs the council meetings, and he has the authority to shut down unruly people at the microphone. He said it’s a judgment call in every case, but he has seen similar behavior at the public microphone in all of his 13 years as an elected official in Missoula, and he hasn’t quieted Matthew-Jenkins because he must honor the First Amendment.
“In my experience, for better or worse, we have to have a high tolerance for that sort of thing,” Engen said.
Council president Marler runs the meetings in his absence, council members run committee meetings, and it is rare for any presiding officer to gavel off a member of the public. Marler, though, said she does regret not calling a “point of order” to redirect Matthew-Jenkins on one particular occasion, though she said the call is subjective.
“We’re perfectly comfortable listening to complaints and even people disparaging us to our face,” Marler said of elected officials. “That’s part of us being on city council … (But) when it becomes extremely personal and people are agitated and using threatening body language, it just becomes a completely different situation.”
The City Council’s job includes listening to angry people and criticism, but the job doesn’t include listening to colleagues be personally attacked, “which I think has happened.” Marler recently chaired a council meeting, and in advance of public comment, she requested people keep their comments civil.
“Civility is so important, especially in politics,” Marler said Thursday. “It’s always important in every part of life, but especially in politics when people disagree and have strong feelings.
“When there’s a lack of civility, lack of decorum, it prevents other people from wanting to come and participate.”
City attorney Nugent said he plans to write Matthew-Jenkins a letter and send her a copy of his legal opinion. The letter will state there is no merit to her complaint, he said.