You might have missed it, unless you caught the very end of the last Martin County Commission meeting of 2018. Commissioner Harold Jenkins asked for an agenda item on Jan. 8 to reopen the discussion regarding a county civility code.
It's not the first time that Commissioner Jenkins has brought up a civility code.
It was one of his first actions as a newly elected commissioner in 2016. His proposal – part of his campaign pledge to bring better customer service and greater civility to county government – was killed nearly instantly. He was accused of trying to stifle the First Amendment rights of citizens.
He, like so many other Martin County residents, were tired of the accusatory language, misrepresentations and downright rude actions of many of those making public comment. And it was not limited to just the public.
Some commissioners were just as rude, which told us – no one was listening.
We cheered Commissioner Jenkins' request last month, especially considering that it followed One Martin's own call in November for a county civility code.
Our suggested, common-sense points included:
- treating everyone courteously
- giving open-minded consideration to all viewpoints
- listening to others respectfully
- focusing on the issues and avoiding personalizing debate
- exercising self-control
- embracing respectful disagreement and dissent as democratic rights, inherent components of an inclusive public process and tools for forging sound decisions
The City of Stuart adopted a civility code several years ago, as did the new Village of Indiantown Board of Commissioners. The Village's code begins with this statement: “Being 'civil' is not a restraint on the First Amendment right to speak out.” Exactly how we feel.
Here are some of the additional sentences in Indiantown's civility code:
“Civility is stating your opinions and beliefs, without degrading someone else in the process. Civility requires a person to respect other people's opinions and beliefs even if he or she strongly disagrees. It is finding a common ground for dialogue with others. It is being patient, graceful, and having a strong character. That's why we say 'Character Counts' in Indiantown....”
Civility codes often are written in different styles, as you see here, but certainly they convey the same spirit of respect for others and keeping an open mind, which requires listening to others.
Countless cities and county governments have taken this step to improve communication and productivity in their local governments.
Yes, we've seen civility decline over the past few years. This lack of civility erodes public trust, not only between the people and their governments, but among government employees, too. Locally, we've heard credible accounts of county commissioners yelling at county staff behind closed doors, and seen county staff being treated disrespectfully at public meetings.
A management professor at the University of Florida showed that employees subjected to such treatment lose the ability to concentrate. It's not hard to understand how rudeness would negatively impact staff morale along with their performance, creativity, and helpfulness.
It's also contagious as it ripples throughout a department, according to other university studies, poisoning the atmosphere, killing the incentive for providing good customer service and undermining the sense of stewardship so key to effective government.
Obviously, the purpose of a civility code is much more than to ease the tensions created during public comment. It's a reminder to all to be the best version of ourselves.
But can we truly hope to change attitudes on a local level, since incivility seems to have earned a certain level of acceptability these days at all levels? Absolutely, yes.
After all, civility should be as intrinsic to “the Martin County difference” as is environmental protection. Let's give our support this Tuesday to Commissioner Jenkins' effort to adopt a Martin County civility code.