‘The need for civility in local government dialogue’

Posted on July 19, 2012 by

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This article is not new but its message may be even more relevant now. It appears on the website of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. We believe it should be must reading for politicians and media.

by: John C. Gillespie, Esquire
Parker McCay P.A.
Co-Chairman, Municipal & Governmental Relations Department

The fundamental premise for this article is that, as local public officials, we should both show and demand public civility, public tolerance, and civil discourse at this time of increasing political polarization at the national level and in the media. Rhetoric has become too vitriolic; we are losing the ability to discuss things with civility.

Last year’s Presidential campaign is proof enough that we are reaching dangerous levels. The President of the United States is called a “cheap thug and a killer”, and is morphed into Hitler in a political ad. His opponent calls the Republican party “the worst bunch of crooks and liars”. The U. S. Senator who ran for President on the Democratic ticket is a Viet Nam veteran who earned three purple hearts and a silver star; yet opposition loyalists question his patriotism because of anti-war positions he took upon his return home. Unfortunately, negative campaigning is now a fact of life.

But poisonous rhetoric is not limited to federal campaigns, or national political discourse; we find it at the local level as well. Regrettably, there is no “trickle down” effect; we are literally showered with it.

I began outlining this discussion over a year ago. My first draft proposed to simply acknowledge the existence of this condition; to confront it with thoughtful evaluation; and to promote a discussion that would hopefully cause people to conclude that our discourse should be more civil and that Council meetings should be forums for intelligent dialogue and debate; but not stages for rudeness, nasty sarcasm, or intimidation. But after another year of watching the condition deteriorate, it accomplishes little to merely suggest an outcome. We must demand that this change; and that change must begin at the local level, the level where people feel the impact of government actions most directly.

During a very well attended session at November’s League convention, we asked a few questions:

How many of the attendees shared this concern that political civility is being eroded?
How many believed that politics is an honorable profession?
Or, should be an honorable profession?
How many agreed that this incivility contributes to the negative view the public has of our political system?
The almost unanimous response of the eighty or so attendees was “yes” to each question. Let the discussion, therefore, begin.
What is civility? I like these definitions:

“Courteous behavior, politeness”
“A courteous act or utterance”
“The act of showing regard for others”
Pretty simple stuff, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we don’t always witness folks actively “showing regard for others” at public meetings. The problem exists both on the dais and in the audience. Residents visiting meetings are often nastier than elected officials can ever be to one another. Yet, the audience takes its lead from the dais. When elected officials are rude to each other, the audience sees this, and feels like it has a “free pass” to act likewise. Eventually, the situation devolves into sarcasm, rudeness and even name calling.

We are a society that requires instant gratification; we decide what products to buy based on thirty second ads; we rely on sixty second news summaries to tell us all we need to know about an incident that took place over the course of hours, if not days. We want to lose ten pounds in four days; develop washboard abs in a week; and go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.

The late Johnny Carson said recently, while discussing contemporary TV talk shows: “Everything today seems to be sound bites. Nobody wants to hear a good conversation. It’s kind of a lost art.” The same holds true in political dialogue. We want to get our points across, but we assume the sound bite audience will only listen for a little while. So we resort to quick hits that will register. A quick hit is met with an equally short jab; after jabs are traded, somebody decides they need to up the ante, and throws an overhand right. The other side responds with a roundhouse left, and the fight is on. Now the audience is paying attention! And, of course, the tone has completely changed. What started out as a topic for public discussion, which requires the participants to make an argument in support of their point of view, transforms the participants into having an argument — as in having a fight.

Temperate, thoughtful dialogue designed to find common ground on matters of public interest gives way to shrill hyperbole intended not so much to differentiate the points of view, and distinguish the issues; but to polarize the parties interested in those issues and points of view. “Agreeing to disagree” is subverted by outright antagonism.

Tolerance for opposing views is an essential ingredient to a successful democracy. I don’t have to agree with you; I should however be tolerant of your unfortunate, misguided thoughts! Voting against buying new uniforms for the youth football program does not necessarily mean “you are going to get those kids killed.” Voting to approve a bond ordinance for a new municipal building to replace the one that is eighty years old and falling apart, doesn’t mean “you’re going to bankrupt our children’s future”. And voting against an emergency squad’s request for a new ambulance doesn’t mean “you’ll have blood on your hands when someone’s 9-1-1 call isn’t answered in time.”

The challenge for local government officials — the ones who most closely relate to their constituents on a daily basis, at the supermarket, on the soccer fields, and at PTA meetings, is to restore civility to our political discussions, and to improve the tone of those conversations. Perhaps it is the word “political” that causes the change in attitude, volume, and tone. Perhaps if we remember that local officials are less “politicians”, and more “public servants”, elected to advance the community’s interests, it will be easier to remember it is more important to have thoughtful, purposeful conversations, than to “get into” arguments. It is more important to enjoy dialogue with the residents in the community, than to yell at one another. And again, this goes both ways. It requires that we not only treat our elected colleagues in a more dignified fashion; it requires that we demand that of our constitutes as well, particularly during the course of a public meeting. Indeed, the Chair’s exercise of control over a public meeting is not an example of tyranny; it is the key ingredient to a successful dialogue. If everyone was sitting around a small table discussing community issues, there would be no yelling or personal attacks. That there is a ten foot sea of space between the speaker and the dais should not change the dynamics.

High pitched vitriolic rhetoric has a severe negative impact upon a community, and even the operation of local government. This harsh tone and preference to argue rather than discuss must give way to thoughtful dialogue. Only local pubic officials can change the landscape and restore the fundamental premise that it is okay “to agree to disagree” without being personally attacked for doing so.

   
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF PUBLIC CIVILITY©

   
JOHN C. GILLESPIE, ESQUIRE
PARKER McCAY P.A.
CO-CHAIRMAN, MUNICIPAL & GOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS DEPARTMENT

  1. Thou shalt not rudely interrupt a colleague midsentence; nor “speak over” a colleague while she/he is speaking.
   
Example: You can watch and learn from Meet the Press; but cancel any rerun of Crossfire.
 

  2. Thou shalt not assume that shrillness of tone is a substitute for substantive dialogue.
   
Example: See example #1 above.
 

  3. Thou shalt treat the members of the public with the same courtesy as you would if they were members of your body–and perhaps more importantly, require that they treat you and your colleagues the same way.

  4.
Thou shalt not resort to “zingers” designed solely to embarrass your target
(unless, of course, it is the Township Planner–then it’s always okay).

 

  5.
Thou shalt, where possible, explore areas of common ground where legitimate disagreements exist, in an effort to move forward on matters of public importance.

 

  6.
Thou shalt not allow legitimate critique of policy and practice to become a personal attack aimed at the person who devised the policy or implements the practice.

 

  7. Thou shalt always recognize that your colleagues were also elected, just as you were, and deserve the same level of respect for having run and won.
   
Example: Remember that the members of the public who elected the colleague that you don’t like, may be the same folks who send you packing next time around.
 

  8. Thou shalt not ridicule or belittle a colleague, or a member of the public, simply because he or she disagrees with you on an issue.
   
Example: Believing that the words “under God” belong in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t make someone a “theocratic moron”. Conversely, someone who articulates a position urging that the words “under God” should be excluded from the Pledge of Allegiance, doesn’t make that person a “heathen”.
 

  9.
Thou shalt not pretend something is much more important than it really is, simply to score points with an audience.

 

  10. Thou shalt always remember that it is okay to agree to disagree, and that reasonable people can indeed disagree reasonably.