I remember the first time I made a delegation to City Council. The year was 1990.
I remember being very nervous and spending a lot of time writing my speaking notes and getting the timing right to ensure I stayed within 5 minutes.
I remember several members of Council talking with each other, backs turned to me and the public gallery, as I made my delegation.
And I vividly remember one member of Council asking me who I thought I was wasting their time with my delegation.
I knew then that I had a right to make that delegation along with a right to be listened to and treated with respect whether the member of Council agreed with me or not
That night I decided to run for Council.
I remember my first year as Mayor (2000). We did not enjoy the same level of civility in Council Chambers that, generally speaking, we do today. Discussions about important community issues would sometimes deteriorate into personal attacks between elected officials, between elected and public officials or elected officials and members of the public.
I remember speaking to the City Clerk of the day, Lois Giles, about my concerns and she led me to a document – Everyday Ethics for Local Officials. There was a chapter on Promoting Civility at Public Meetings: Concept and Practice.
This quote from a former Mayor resonated with me and informed my practice as a Chair.
“At our council meetings, we ask folks…not to applaud, boo or otherwise make remarks about other people’s testimony. I try to appeal to their sense of fairness by saying that we know how hard it is to get up to speak at council meetings, and out of respect for each person’s feelings, we should allow them to have their say without comment from the public. I have found in my 11 years in office that if you ask nicely and explain it as a courtesy to others, almost everyone complies.”
That has been my experience as well.
I find it interesting that I received the most significant challenge to this practice during a Council meeting when we were having an important community discussion about finding a balance between freedom of expression and community civility (public order).
A discussion of civility at a Council meeting revolves around two competing sets of values: “the value of free expression versus the value of respect for fellow participants in the democratic process”.
This ethical dilemma can be resolved – it is possible to choose to be both expressive and civil at the same time, to disagree without being disagreeable.
The events of this week led me to return to this document and to reflect on this quote once more.
I will continue to ask members of the public attending a Council meeting to refrain from applauding and booing (and yes, in my book that includes, non-verbal signs like red and green cards). I will continue to ask for their cooperation in choosing civility believing this will encourage broader participation in local government. And I will continue to ask all participants to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of a proposed solution to a community concern and not to engage in personal attacks, either directly or through association, against those who favour different solutions.