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It looks like the new era of harmony on the Santa Rosa City Council couldn't manage to survive even one council meeting.

At their first gathering as a newly organized council on Tuesday night, the group sat down to sing "Kumbayah," and didn't get through the first verse.

The flashpoint — if you can call it that — was a single word in an otherwise benign 1,300-word article that ran in Tuesday's Press Democrat. In Staff Writer Kevin McCallum's piece about new Mayor Scott Bartley, the new leader of the council referred to long-time neighborhood activist Jack Swearengen as "clueless."

Bartley's council colleagues pounced.

Julie Combs, one of two new members on the council, took time at Tuesday's meeting to speak up for Swearengen as "a kind and gentle man who volunteers his time tirelessly for the betterment of Santa Rosa." She suggested the council revisit its code of conduct with an eye toward toning down criticism of the city's citizenry.

When Bartley didn't rise to the bait, Councilman Gary Wysocky threw his line in the water, too, asking if Bartley planned to apologize, as requested by another citizen who sent an e-mail to all council members. Barley said he would not, and when Wysocky again goaded him with the question, the new mayor proclaimed he had nothing to apologize for.

I don't want to accuse anyone of lacking a clue, but do council members ever listen to themselves? Do they listen to the public?

If they did, they might get clued in to the fact that this kind of tit-for-tat coup-counting is not only unproductive, but unbecoming. The citizens of Santa Rosa have a clear understanding that among the many problems facing our fair city, the matter of which council person scores the most political points in a Tuesday-night meeting does not rank anywhere near the top.

And that seems to be what Combs and Wysocky had in mind by pressing this matter.

Bartley, on the other hand, passed up a chance to appear mayor-like when he refused to apologize for his remark. He was selected by his council colleagues to serve in the mayor's post after a campaign in which a prime topic of discussion was the need to end the internecine warfare between the council's ideological factions. In his first meeting as mayor, Bartley could have taken a step toward that goal by telling Swearengen he was sorry for his poor choice of words. But instead he parried Combs's and Wysocky's thrusts with a whack of his own.

"Basically, they were kind of calling me out at the meeting," Bartley told McCallum on Wednesday. "They waited for the opportunity in public to call me out, and that's inappropriate."

Maybe so, but responding in kind only perpetuates the game, which appears to be devolving into something more appropriate on the playground than in the council chambers.

Granted, this was but three minutes' worth of dialog in the middle of a three-hour meeting, and it hardly rises to the level of a crisis in government. But the tone is disturbing, and certainly doesn't bode well for the next two years of relations among this group of council members.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County. </i>