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Thoughts on the county, the city, and civility

It was a noble first start. John van Bladel, a psychology instructor at Fulton Montgomery Community College, joined a committee meeting with Mayor Ann Thane, Controller Matt Agresta, Alderman Richard Leggiero and Alderwoman Valerie Beekman on Monday to discuss the topic of civility. Van Bladel gave some background on his involvement in the FMCC Civility Project which he said aims to promote the practice of civility in the community. He provided printed guidelines for civil behavior to the attendees, containing principles such as “listen deeply”, “respect others points of view”, “refrain from gossip”, “accept responsibility,” as well as other “rules for considerate conduct.”

Van Bladel said the “golden rule” which is to “treat other people the way you would like to be treated,” was also central to the practice of civility, but conceded, “It’s not so easy.”

Along those lines, I think if there was one group that made a noticeable and concerted effort this past year to act civil to each other, it would be the members of the new Montgomery County government. Given that 2014 was the first year of the new government, it was obvious to me that everyone was trying hard to be on their best behavior and downplay any disagreements. There were a handful of contentious debates that surfaced throughout the year, but in my opinion, the legislature and executive worked through them in a professional manner.

In the context of talking about the county government’s image, County Executive Matt Ossenfort said in his recent State of the County speech, “We don’t ‘duke it out’ in public, because that’s what goes in the papers and that’s what people see.”

But something about that bothers me a little. Personal attacks and squabbling over petty issues should have no place in legislative sessions. However, it is certainly possible to argue in a civil manner and public debates are essential to an open and accountable government.

I believe one of the times this past year when proper public debate was lacking was during the county budget process. I find it hard to believe there weren’t any differences of opinion on Ossenfort’s proposed budget which included a 2% tax increase. But we saw almost no questioning, debate or negotiations during public sessions. I have no doubt a lot of work was done behind-the-scenes, but I’m not sure if that was for the best. The public needs to see the differing opinions and viewpoints from leaders. It’s great the legislature and executive achieved unity on the budget, but I don’t think the public has a clear picture as to how they did it.

My hope is that county leaders continue to practice civility, but aren’t so “image conscious” this year such that they keep any meaningful debate in the closet. Arguments are nothing to be ashamed of. The United States has a great history of vigorous public debate ever since it’s very founding. The fact that disagreements exist within government is not the problem, but rather it’s how those disagreements are worked through which should concern us.

By contrast, to say that this past year in city government was “contentious” would be an understatement. The principles that van Bladel brought to yesterday’s meeting are all very good ideas that if fully embraced by everyone in city government, would help a lot. Only two council members attended the meeting, and Thane says she is going to try to schedule van Bladel to speak again sometime this month. I think having a discussion on civility would be beneficial, but I have to admit I am a little skeptical that all the city leaders, especially given the upcoming elections, are going to sit down and sing “kumbaya” with each other. But it’s certainly worth a shot and maybe if even a little progress is made, it would be worth the effort.

I have to commend those who attended for letting down their guard a little and speaking candidly.

Thane said, “One of my biggest problems is listening without wanting to respond. And that means that I’m not listening I think. Because I want to communicate my side or I catch on something that I think is not quite factual or correct. And then I just want to correct it immediately and I don’t want to wait or listen. It’s a terrible habit.”

Leggiero said, “I think what we’re lacking as a council is respect for one another. The old saying ‘respect isn’t given, it’s earned.’ Seems to be that’s a problem that we have, learning to respect one another. And a little courtesy too, sometimes for the office. That’s something I think that could be worked out. But both parties have got to agree…to try. It’s a two-way street is what it is.”

Leggiero also said that he was taught civility as a child. And I think that underscores one of the problems with the situation. As adults, we should all know how to act civilly, but yet we often don’t. In my personal experience, I see that when a community has a unified vision and trusts that leaders are working toward that vision, that civil interactions come much more easily. However when goals diverge (or are perceived to diverge) and people lose trust in their leaders and in each other, civility takes a nosedive.

And I wonder if that isn’t the core problem within the city. I’ve written before that it seems our community is split in its vision for the city’s future. Some people seem to gravitate toward a suburban vision for the city, while others want to increase its urban character. Some think the city’s best days are still to come, while others seem to be looking for a soft landing. If our city’s residents can’t agree on a unified vision, it shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that our elected leaders struggle with that either.

Toward the end of the meeting, Thane said she wanted to talk with the council about “establishing what our common ground and what our common goal is.” She went on to say, “Because maybe we are not wanting the same things in the end. Maybe we haven’t spent enough time exploring that. Do we want the same things?”

Beekman said, “I would hope our common ground is to work for the taxpayers of the city, which is the position that we were elected for. And to look at the city as a whole and what needs to be fixed.”

Thane said, “Where I’d like to see it go is beyond rhetoric, like ‘I work for the taxpayer’ – what does that really mean? What exactly do you really want to give the taxpayer?”

If the conversation continues in this direction, then maybe we might get somewhere. But there are some hard questions to answer. If some taxpayers want nothing but a tax cut, and others want their tax money invested in economic development, what should our leaders do? Unless those difficult questions are dealt with, then I’m afraid any progress in the area of civility will only be skin deep. And if we find it’s really the goal of either party to simply undermine the other’s political power while strengthening their own, then we’ll never get anywhere.

Frankly, I’m willing to forgive a little bit of in-civility if we can start uncovering and dealing with some of the core divisions within our community. Because otherwise, acting civil will be a public facing veneer that covers up the problems and defects underneath. I don’t want to see that on either the city or county level. On the other hand, I believe the principles put forward by van Bladel, if followed by all parties, can help our city leaders have better, more constructive conversations that start to address some of those core issues. Here’s to hoping!

(Cartoon drawing by andrewgenn)

About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

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