Maintaining Civility

I was asked several months ago to organize a panel focusing on civility for the League of Oregon Cities Annual Conference this week in Eugene.  I was fortunate to find my predecessor, Steve Bryant, and former boss, La Grande Mayor Colleen Johnson, willing to help with the presentation.  All of us have seen our share of bad moments at City Council meetings over the past 25 years or so, but I don’t think any of us had witnessed anything as dramatic as the events that unfolded at a meeting of the Vancouver, Washington, City Council last week.

Steve sent me a copy of the now-viral YouTube video clip [see link at end of this paragraph] that shows some citizens trying to make a presentation to their elected City Council.  I am sure there are many reasons why one member of the Council took exception to the presentation and why the mayor decided to spend at least ten minutes trying to explain why the citizens should not be heard.  Unfortunately, the video record only shows some polite-appearing citizens being treated very badly by at least two elected officials.  The show also includes an abusive exchange between two council members that will not help either of their reelection campaigns.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_8HgrM4LcE)

Our plan is to use the video to help city staff and elected officials from around the state to avoid similar scenes in their own council chambers.  It is hard to understand how difficult it can be to maintain a civil discourse in a public meeting until you have actually been in the middle of a contentious debate.  There are techniques, skills, and practices that can help; but I think it’s also important to remember that anyone can be drawn into an ugly argument under the right circumstances.

Late night meetings that follow an exhausting work day are fertile ground for cultivating grumpiness.  Public bodies try to accommodate citizens by holding meetings when they believe most people can attend.  While this practice is widespread and appropriate, it should be accompanied by an agreement to limit the length of the meeting.  Bad things happen when meetings run too long, and I don’t recall a good decision made after 11 p.m. at a council meeting.

Limiting debate or presentations in advance can also be a valuable tool to keep discussions productive.  The mayor in Vancouver could have asked the citizens to limit their talk to five minutes and spent far less time dealing with the issue.  He would also potentially have avoided some of the ugly scenes that played out through the meeting.

Attacking the problem rather than the person is a great way to keep debate focused on the right subject.  I think all of us are more open to changing our mind when someone makes a persuasive argument based on facts and insight.  I have never seen anyone warm up to another’s idea after being humiliated or belittled.

Finally, self-deprecating humor relieves tension and often changes the atmosphere in a room.  Some years ago, I attended a Pendleton city council meeting where a number of angry citizens confronted their elected representatives with a variety of complaints.  Even after the mayor and council attempted to address the concerns, the room was tense and uncomfortable.  I had inadvertently picked this meeting to deliver three concrete cow pies to our neighboring city as my organization’s contribution to a Pendleton public art project that involved a herd of concrete cows.  My brief presentation of La Grande’s artwork completely changed the feeling in the chambers and accidentally helped make a very negative situation much more positive.  I did feel a little dumb about formally presenting cow pies after hearing citizens complain about a murder and some tax issues, but I guess my dignity was a small price to pay for a good outcome.

Civility is important to local government because the health of our communities depends on the ability to resolve problems and make difficult decisions.  I know at least a few elected local leaders in Vancouver who now carry a heavier burden and face greater challenges in serving the best interests of their city.