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Guest opinion: Conduct city business with order and civility, not personal attacks

May 8, 2014
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Public opinion polls show that local government is most trusted by citizens because it is closest to the people, where individuals have an opportunity to shape policy that impacts their daily lives.

Local governments across Florida readily provide citizens with an opportunity to share their perspective on a wide range of issues. This makes local government unique.

The U.S. Senate doesn't pause its floor debates for public commentary. Neither do the Florida House or Senate. Those democratic institutions do their work and leave the public comment to committee meetings, news channels, talk radio and coffee shops.

Unfortunately, as we have seen in City Commission chambers across Florida, too often the time set aside for constructive public comment about agenda items degenerates into a destructive forum, with a few perpetually dissatisfied individuals launching off-topic and sometimes personal attacks on elected officials.

Instead of trashing local government, we should treasure its commitment to public engagement and the public good.

Criticizing leaders is as old as our republic. But as former U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn from Texas famously noted, "Any jackass can kick a barn down. It takes a real carpenter to build one." Instead of adding ideas to build up their communities, some habitually misuse the public comment opportunity to tear down their cities and their elected leaders.

No one thinks twice if the speaker of the House turns off a representative's microphone during debate if the member strays from the subject at hand. The same goes for the presiding officer in any government proceeding.

Yes, the First Amendment does protect free speech, including speech some may find objectionable. But free speech must be responsible speech; there are limits to what a person can say.

You can't go on the radio and say anything you want on the publically owned airwaves. A 7-second delay exists for just this reason. What often happens if a caller to a talk radio show begins abusing his opportunity to speak? The host or producer hangs up the phone and moves on to the next caller.

Free speech doesn't include the privilege to say or publish things you know are false about another person. That's why newspapers - traditionally among the strongest defenders of the First Amendment - have rules readers must follow in order to use their pages or website to access the public.

Still, it seems these days that anyone can say just about anything about an elected official.

Cities across the state are facing this issue and are taking steps to maintain decorum without stifling citizen feedback.

This is not a discussion about limiting criticism. This is about some who want to turn their few minutes at the bully pulpit into bullying-style personal attacks on elected leaders, when these meeting are supposed to be about conducting the business of city government.

It surely is out of order to allow an audience to yell, boo or make personal attacks when a citizen or an elected official is trying to speak. Under Roberts' Rules of Order, "remarks must be courteous in language and deportment - avoid all personalities, never allude to others by name or to motives."

Using this rule as a guide, it is proper for the city to take reasonable steps to ensure that its meetings are conducted properly.

For too long, the discussion of important public issues has often resembled a free-for-all hosted by World Wrestling Entertainment instead of a dialogue to benefit the taxpayers of our communities. It's time someone took a positive step forward to improve our discourse, prevent the hijacking of meetings to promote personal vendettas, and ensure that our leaders are tackling the public business in front of them.

Mike Sittig is the executive director of the Florida League of Cities.

 
 

 

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