When you were in third grade, whom you sat next to in school mattered. You wanted to gossip, to flirt or to tempt your classmate into disruptive mid-class snickering. But more than anything else, where you sat mattered because everything matters when you're a 9-year-old. Generally, it's not until high school that we begin to realize such trivialities don't define us.
This is why a recent topic of discussion in the Missoula City Council chambers is somewhat bewildering: the seating arrangement.
Since anyone can seem to remember, council members sat according to wards. This allowed ward mates to snicker and flirt and gave the citizens in the gallery a visual reminder of which members were representing which neighborhoods.
But in early 2013, City Council President Marilyn Marler decided to shake things up. Rather than sit by ward, she ordered the council members sit in alphabetical order. The idea was to get alderpeople who had been lacking the bond of proximity the opportunity to get to know one another. Apparently, the plan worked, and Marler later changed the arrangement again, seating members by length of tenure.
While Councilman Dave Strohmaier admits that where people sit is not a critical discussion, he adds that there is some value to rearranging.
"The reality is that if you sit next to someone, you will develop some rapport with that person you might not otherwise," he says.
But not all council members have been pleased with the change. Councilman Jon Wilkins feels the old practice of sitting by ward made more sense. He feels that the seat shuffling is not only confusing to the citizens attending meetings, it's ultimately pointless.
"Basically, Marler is a little bit like a school teacher," he says. "She's just playing musical chairs with us. Wards ought to sit together."
In a May 15 vote, after a lengthy discussion, Wilkins was joined only by Dick Haines in favor of ending the game of musical chairs. The vote was a success for the city of Missoula, not because changing seats is an effective lubricant to the cogs of municipal government. The vote was a success because it ended a discussion better suited for third-graders than publicly elected grown-ups.