Two press releases found their way to my desk recently. Both are from the city of West Jordan, and both are apologies for things that were said in recent City Council meetings.
As far as civility goes, meetings out there have been at the low end of the scale lately - kind of like the "Jerry Springer Show" during the short time he didn't allow physical violence. No one has physically attacked anyone else - yet (at one meeting a councilman suggested summoning the police to make sure things didn't get out of hand).All of this is unusual for Utah, although the Salt Lake County Commission and the County Attorney have had their share of blowups in recent years, too. But it is hardly anomalous for the United States as a whole these days, and a lot of cities are struggling for solutions. The problem has gotten so bad that the National League of Cities and Towns made unruliness a main focus last year.
In America, folks prefer a government that is close to the people. But maybe that's just so they can take a good whack at it.
In St. Louis recently, the president of a school board grabbed another board member by the throat. "It was a momentary lapse of good judgment," the board president admitted later to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That's funny. In most circles it would be called a momentary criminal act.
These lapses appear to be contagious. In Arizona recently, a frustrated tax protester shot and wounded a Maricopa County supervisor.
Perhaps these are the hazards of freedom. The hallmark of democracy, after all, is openness. When people hold the power, they have not only the right, but the duty, to question and to scrutinize. Under restrictive government systems, questions and scrutiny are forbidden. No one speaks to a monarch unless spoken to, and the people are called subjects. But in America, local leaders and their constituents relish the gift of gab, and the only subjects are the ones that come up in conversations, or in city council meetings.
But when people have different ideas about how to solve problems, and when they don't trust each other, the level of discourse tends to degenerate. And people don't trust each other these days. Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland professor who tracks the level of civility nationwide, recently told the Dallas Morning News that about 66 percent of Americans believe most people can't be trusted, which is about the opposite of what it was 30 years ago.
Some cities have tried to impose codes of conduct or to set lists of rules on each seat in the council chamber. In Fostoria, Ohio, the City Council went one step further, passing a resolution stating the obvious - that it is wrong to lie, speak too loudly or use abusive language; that littering and swearing are not nice and that people should try to help others and avoid doing wrong.
But, as it turns out, people can't even agree on these simple rules. Some Fostoria residents resent government dictating morals and values. According to the Chicago Tribune, one council member who voted against the resolution said, "It's illogical to make these ideas the official viewpoint of our city."
Against this backdrop, the West Jordan apologies are almost refreshing, except for one thing, of course. The mayor said she never approved of her name being associated with them and has since demanded an apology of her own. Even apologies, it seems, can be used as weapons.
I'm not about to take sides in this one. But I would like to remind everyone of a few things. The first is that the public's business ought to loom larger than individual feelings or egos. Public servants need skins as thick as rhinoceroses. When taxpayers, or even other public officials, question them, they have a special duty to absorb and tolerate more than an average person would. They aren't making decisions about their own money, after all.
The second is that it isn't necessary to agree on all things and that criticism isn't always bad. The two apologies in question were for a "controversy" the council "may have created about the South Valley Sanctuary, a domestic violence shelter," and for a "controversy" surrounding a soccer complex.
In plain English, some people had questioned whether the city followed proper procedures in the way it funded both projects. The second apology goes as far as to admit that the soccer fields had to be built quickly, which "caused some mistakes to be made."
Incivility comes in several different forms, but rarely does it come in the form of a question. No one need apologize for wondering about how taxes were expended. The trick, however, is to do the wondering respectfully and to let the facts, not emotions, serve as an answer.
That may be difficult when people don't trust each other. But it's necessary if we all want to keep governing ourselves freely and openly.