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As I See It: What’s Happened to Civility?

Jim MillerBy Jim Miller

Toward the end of the last legislative session, Gov. Mark Dayton held several community meetings in various cities to explain his budget and tax proposals in an attempt to personally take his message to citizens and to have a dialogue about his priorities.

At one meeting, some attendees confronted the governor in a manner that he later described as “juvenile” and “rude.” A few days later, several letters to the editor appeared in the Star Tribune, one suggesting that this was the only way to get the governor’s attention. In other words, the means justified the ends in this case.

Part of such incivility undoubtedly comes from the diminished lack of respect many have for government and, by extension, the people who serve in it.

We even see that subtly, for example, in how the president of the United States is referred to as “Obama” or “Bush,” rather than President Obama or President Bush. The increasing complexity of the issues government faces may also be a contributor. It may even partially come from the increasingly impersonal way we have become accustomed to treating each other in general. There are undoubtedly numerous reasons.

No level of government is immune from such conduct. We have all seen, perhaps even participated in, city council meetings that resemble “The Jerry Springer Show” more than a forum for respectful debate on important community issues. Often it seems people are simply unwilling to accept governmental decisions that are contrary to their wishes; the public hearing degenerates into personal attacks, and the impacts far outlast the meeting. Some then ask who would want to seek election in or work for such a community?

And, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that incivility is not all onesided. It’s not just those who interact with government who are to blame. Sometimes, it’s government officials themselves. That occurs when councilmembers question staff’s motives or competency in front of a sympathetic audience at a public hearing. It also occurs when staff is disrespectful of the council or its decisions or when the city clerk refuses to share necessary records with the council.

There is, however, another type of incivility, perhaps less commonly recognized, but no less detrimental. This involves instances where local officials seem to have forgotten or have disregarded the fact that with their election or appointment comes a special obligation to the office they hold. Local government office is not a license to carry out a personal agenda. It is an obligation to always act in the best interest of those who live and work in our communities.

When that is forgotten, incivility canChalkboard writing says quickly result, especially when very contentious issues are under consideration. Citizens watching then have their belief that government is incompetent (or worse) reinforced.

One vivid example of disregard for one’s office involves the mayor of San Diego, who has been under constant pressure to resign after multiple accusations and at least one lawsuit resulting from his alleged sexual misconduct against women. This story has played out in the local and national media for weeks and created a very negative image not only of the mayor, but of the city as well. The long-term loss of public confidence has yet to be measured.

Some argue, as was heard in response to the governor’s comments, that such conduct is not a big deal. It’s simply part of the process, they say. In truth, however, it is indeed a big deal. How we treat each other in our daily lives matters, whether it is with family members or the clerk at McDonalds. On a very basic level, we have an obligation to treat each other with respect. That imperative takes on even greater significance for those who hold public office.

The issues and decisions government faces today are more complex than ever. Certainly, part of that complexity comes from our increasing diversity at every level, including our political beliefs. Yet, government will remain the vehicle to resolve our differences. It can only work effectively if all who participate have trust in the process. That trust can only be established and bolstered by those who truly respect the public office they hold and act accordingly—that is, civilly.

Note: See related article "Seeking to Restore Civility."

Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jmiller@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

Read the November-December 2013 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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