By Melissa Kuehne, Program Manager, Institute for Local Government
In a recent ILG survey of local agency leaders, more than 54% of respondents reported an increase in hostility, divisiveness, bad behavior, and misconduct in their public meetings over the past two years.
Representative participation and open and transparent meetings are the foundation of our democracy. If left unchecked, this increased vitriol and incivility threaten to weaken that foundation. This leaves many local officials and staff asking the same question: “How do we maintain, and encourage, public access and participation while ensuring the safety of elected officials, staff, and community members?”
The type and tenor of discourse in public meetings has far-reaching effects. Negative comments can derail and prolong board meetings, erode trust, and impact the board’s ability to conduct the public’s business.
Most of our Board meetings are civil, and even people who might be upset about something usually conduct themselves with decorum. Occasionally, we do get someone who takes their three-minutes of public comment time to berate, belittle and insult. I find it sad that people feel the need to do that. I can tell you, I listen much more closely to a reasoned, impassioned argument than I do when someone stoops to name calling and vitriol." Gregg Fishman, Board member, Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
Incivility in public meetings and other aspects of public service can also impact a district’s ability to attract and retain talent. In an informal survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association, 25% of respondents indicated they had left public service because of the lack of civility. Without talented staff, districts will not be able to provide the level of service our communities need and have come to expect. Without high-quality staff, districts will not be able to tackle the range of complex and ever-changing issues facing local government.
There are growing fears that continued negative discourse could also discourage broad community engagement with local governments. The general public may be less inclined to participate in meetings that frequently turn negative or violent. This could result in boards only hearing from a very vocal minority of their community, who may not represent the thoughts, feelings, or preferences of the community as a whole. In addition, special districts rely on ratepayers for revenue. Special districts must build and maintain trust with their customers and residents to ensure that district programs and proposals are supported by key stakeholders.
Improving civil discourse: codes of conduct
While there is no simple solution for improving civility overnight, there are several actions local governments can take to incrementally improve public discourse. For starters, remember that local officials are role models and should act accordingly.
“Civility starts with us. As leaders we are role models for our staff and for our community. How we operate sets the stage for the public is going to engage with us – at board meetings, at public workshops, and in the community.” Don Bartz, General Manager, Phelan and Piñon Hills CSD
To encourage and model civility, elected leaders can:
- collaborate and operate as a team.
- demonstrate honesty and integrity in every action.
- prioritize strengthening relationships and building trust.
- accept personal responsibility.
- focus on civil discourse; disagree agreeably and professionally.
- work for the common good, not personal interest.
- attack the problem, never the person.
- be open-minded and embrace diverse points of view.
- strive for a win-win; work toward consensus and seek common ground.
- practice active listening.
- think about shared values and find common ground.
Some local governments have identified shared values and created a set of agreed-upon norms with a documented civility policy, code of conduct, or rules of decorum. These documents set expectations for how the board will visibly model the kind of behavior it expects from the public. ILG has compiled a list of sample codes and policies for local officials online. Some common elements in these policies include variations of the following expectations:
- Treat everyone courteously.
- Be inclusive.
- Show respect.
- Exercise self-control.
- Take responsibility.
- Give consideration to all viewpoints.
- Focus on the issues and avoid personalizing debate.
- Disagree agreeably and professionally.
These policies can include a section outlining appropriate and inappropriate public behavior; like specific provisions against conduct by meeting attendees that could provoke violent or riotous behavior or disturb the orderly management of the meeting. Examples of negative conduct may include physical or verbal threats, vulgar or boisterous language, refusing to abide by time limits, throwing objects, or other disorderly conduct. Adopting an official policy for all attendees can also allow for enforcement measures such as warnings, ejections from meetings, or even suspension from government buildings.
Improving civil discourse: proactively engaging the community and providing clarity about engaging in public meetings
While many board meetings may have little community participation, rate actions and other controversial items may draw large, and very actively engaged, audiences. Providing opportunities for community engagement and input outside of standard board meetings can potentially offset the volume of public comments received in official board meetings. Consider employing different public engagement efforts for the community to provide feedback and be heard on hot button issues. Approaches such as town halls, coffee chats, surveys, websites, information sessions, and emails can allow for an additional, broader range of public input.
“There are a lot of laws and rules that mandate how we run our board meetings. It is important not only that we as local leaders understand the boundaries and nuances of the law, but also equally important that we communicate those parameters to the community so they have a clearer picture of when and how they can share ideas, feedback, and comments.”Don Bartz, General Manager, Phelan and Piñon Hills CSD
Improving civil discourse: managing public comment
Districts also have some flexibility when it comes to managing public comment. Districts may want to consider the following tips to manage the full public comment process, particularly for more controversial issues.
- Set parameters for how officials engage during public comment – work with the board secretary and legal counsel to understand in advance what board members can and cannot say
- Clearly define how public comment will be managed and state it at the beginning of the meeting, and before the public comment section(s) of the agenda
- Publicly explain the transparency reasons for public comments, especially with regard to what board members can and cannot respond to
- Be consistent with commenter speaking times
- Set consistent ground rules about applause, boos, etc.
- Allow groups to speak as one using a designated speaker
- Attempt to diffuse angry speakers using active listening techniques
Improving civil discourse: meeting design
If a community decides to hold a public workshop, there are several key logistical items related to meeting design that should be considered before and during the meeting to limit grandstanding and provide space for more balanced conversations.
Before the workshop:
- Be strategic about meeting design. Consider the room setup and ways to incorporate small and large group discussions, different ways to provide input, or real-time polling.
- Clearly define the roles of staff and elected officials.
- Establish a clear facilitation and governance process in advance. Discuss how decisions, if applicable, will be made, determine who will lead the meeting, and identify any follow-up activities or engagement opportunities that will need to be shared.
- Consider language access and accessibility needs to ensure that key stakeholders can participate in the process. Addressing this early will minimize attendee frustration.
- Understand hot button issues in advance.
- Draft and rehearse sample verbal prompts or scripts for all agency representatives that address various scenarios in advance so that electeds and staff can be prepared for challenging topics.
During the workshop:
- Manage expectations. Explain the process, meeting design, and timelines, including how community feedback will be used and how participants can remain engaged throughout the process. This will reduce the uncertainty of nonparticipation.
- Publicly clarify the roles and responsibilities of staff and elected officials so that participants know which district officials can address which issues.
- Offer multiple formats for public comment. Some participants may not be comfortable providing verbal comments, so consider surveys, notecards, or other options for nonverbal feedback.
- Take breaks as needed to reset. This strategy may help defuse tense situations.
- Consider using a neutral facilitator to lead the meeting — an expert that does not have a stake in the outcome of the meeting.
Since board meetings are regulated by the Brown Act, elected officials and staff have limited options when changing the format of meetings and responding to public comments. However, there are still options to consider when officiating a board meeting.
- Agree on a process in advance. Does each board member have an option to speak on every agenda item? Does your district use Robert’s Rules of Order or Rosenberg’s Rules of Order? Do you have a code of conduct that the board and community are expected to abide by? How are those rules enforced?
- Manage expectations. Residents may not understand all the intricacies of the local government decision-making process. When possible, explain engagement opportunities and the limitations elected leaders may have when responding.
- Make sure your chair understands the meeting format, process, and options.
- Be thoughtful and deliberative; use scripts as appropriate to ensure an accurate, respectful, and courteous response.
- Take a break if things get heated and only use ejection as a last resort.
- Consistently enforce your code of conduct or civility policy.
While there is no easy solution to the increase in incivility and harassment, it is important to remain committed to finding ways to increase civility, build bridges, and design a governance model that reinforces positive and equitable outcomes for the district and the community.
“Let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof…Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” ~John F. Kennedy
ILG resources to help your district
The Institute for Local Government offers resources and training to help special districts operate more effectively as a team and better engage with each other, district staff, and the community. When it comes to improving civility, ILG offers resources on responsibilities and powers, decision-making, effective meetings, and community engagement. Visit ILG’s leadership and public engagement web pages for more information about these opportunities.
Leading Local webinar series highlights ways to decrease divisiveness
Although trust in local government remains higher than in other levels of government, divisiveness and partisanship have become increasingly prevalent in local communities as well, which if left unchecked, can threaten public trust. As a result, many local officials are looking for tools to address this issue in a way that is authentic and effective. ILG has embarked on a new partnership with Braver Angels, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.
Together, ILG and Braver Angels are co-hosting a new training series to help local government leaders better interact with the public and each other to foster productive and respectful conversations. The trainings are part of ILG’s Leading Local webinar series and will include at least three sessions covering topics such as:
- Communication skills for bridging the partisan divide.
- Depolarizing from within and how to intervene in polarizing conversations.
- Managing difficult conversations with constituents and colleagues.
The training series is being offered free of charge, but space is limited and registration is required.
TIERS Public Engagement Framework and Training
ILG’s TIERS framework provides a step-by- step framework that will help local governments master the public engagement process and build trust in their community. This training helps operationalize outreach and engagement efforts in a more sustainable and collaborative way and provides with resources and digital tools to authentically engage the community.
This comprehensive training is open to any local government agency in California and can apply to a variety of ongoing public engagement initiatives ranging from budgeting to infrastructure, to climate resilience and disaster preparedness. Find out more at www.ca-ilg.org/TIERS.
ILG can also customize tailored training sessions and private, facilitated discussions for jurisdictions throughout the state. Whether your team is struggling with maintaining civility in public meetings, expanding public engagement or is looking to go from good to great collaboration amongst your board, ILG can help you meet those goals. Sessions are offered in both virtual and in-person formats.
For more information about how ILG can help increase civility and effective communications in your community, contact Melissa Kuehne at email@example.com.