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.”