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The Importance of Being Civil

The Importance of Being Civil

Local government decisions and actions generally impact citizens most directly in our day to day lives. Frequently a local government board or council will meet every other week and, when they do, they take up matters ranging from land use decisions, to ordinances or local laws, to contracts with solid waste vendors and other public contractors.  Citizen participation in the process, by attending meetings, speaking at meetings, and offering input and solutions, is a critical component of an effectively functioning local government. But such interaction on the part of elected officials and citizens must be civil in order for the interaction to be fair and productive.

Each May, the City, County and Local Government Law Section of the Florida Bar asks all local governments in Florida to adopt a pledge of civility for the elected officials and citizens.  Civility is important in government because, without it, we witness the democratic process becoming mired down in anger, rudeness, ridicule, impatience, and disrespect. Behavior that is not civil detracts from the open exchange of ideas and may discourage people from participating in the governmental process at all.

Citizen behavior is an important component of civility but the significance of an effective presiding official in maintaining a civil and orderly process cannot be understated. Citizens should bear in mind that all comment should be directed to the presiding official and observers should refrain from applause, catcalls, or other disruptive outbursts during public meetings.  To that end, conveyance of a different opinion or position on an issue can be very productive to the democratic process when expressed in a persuasive and cogent manner that is heard by a respectful audience. A recent change to Florida’s Sunshine Law ensures that citizens have the right to be heard at public meetings; however, this right to be heard may be limited in time so citizens should be prepared to make the most efficient and productive use of the time they are given to speak by organizing their thoughts and avoiding repetitious comments.

In closing, many city, county, and local government board rooms display a plaque commending Civility. The text of the Civility plaque summarizes the goals of civility far better than this author can. The plaque reads as follows:   “We will be respectful of one another even when we disagree. We will direct all comments to the issues. We will avoid personal attacks.”

Annual Ethics Training Requirement Expanded To Now Include Municipal Officers

Annual Ethics Training Requirement Expanded To Now Include Municipal Officers

Over the past couple of years, Florida’s Code of Ethics, found at Part III, Chapter 112, Florida Statutes, has been the rare subject of legislative amendments. A recent major addition to the Code of Ethics is the requirement that all constitutional officers complete four hours of ethics, public records, and Sunshine law training each calendar year. At the time of the initial passage of this training requirement, the following individuals were included: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, the Chief Financial Officer, the Commissioner of Agriculture, state attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs, tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, clerks of the circuit court, county commissioners, district school board members, and superintendents of schools.

Municipal officers were not included in the 2013 training requirement; however, the law was amended again in 2014 to expand the training requirement to include municipal officers. Therefore, effective January 1, 2015, all elected municipal officers must also complete four hours of ethics, public records, and Sunshine law training on an annual basis. Additionally, beginning on January 1, 2015, all officers will be required to certify that the officer completed the training at the time the officer files his/her annual financial disclosure form.

There are many opportunities for municipal and county officers to compete this training requirement. In addition to live training opportunities occurring throughout the year, there are a number of free or inexpensive resources available including:

– Free video tutorials and audio presentations available at the Florida Commission on Ethics website. All have been prepared by the Commission on Ethics staff. These trainings are free and can be easily accessed at any time from one’s computer by going to http://ethics.state.fl.us (use the left drop down menu); and

– The Institute of Government offers online ethics and Sunshine law training for a nominal fee at http://iog.fsu.edu/events/online_training/index.html.

The Florida Commission on Ethics will continue to post training opportunities as they become available. Please check their website frequently for updates at http://ethics.state.fl.us.