The Need to Return to Civil Discourse

 

In this first article, we will discuss the change in culture on the Village Board that has occurred since the last election.  The reason we’ll talk about this first is that good government is not only about what is done, but also how it is done.  In later articles we may talk about specific issues such as Village finances, public safety, personnel management, and support of businesses.

Between us, we’ve served on the Village Board for as long as 22 years.  During that time, we’ve worked with many other Trustees and the previous Mayor.  When those people were appointed or ran for election to the Village Board of Germantown Hills, they didn’t do it for glory; they did it to serve the community. 

The many people who served on the Village Board over those years came from a variety of lifestyles and employments.  And as such, they brought varying skills that they used in service to the community, and which we all appreciated.  While we came to the meetings with different ideas, there were never big partisan arguments.  Sometimes we might have started with significantly different views on a particular issue, which understandably lead to healthy debate.  But that debate was always polite and respectful.  Often we were able to reach a consensus, where everyone on the Village Board ended up supporting a compromise position.  Those times when we couldn’t reach consensus, we would have a split vote.   But even then, there was no loss of respect between the Board members, and we left the meetings as friends.

So when the 2009 election campaign started, we initially expected that those who were running would approach the service of the Village like the many Trustee candidates of twenty years past.  But that was not to be.

During the campaign itself, the new Mayoral candidate and two Trustee candidates that ran with him, spoke of a need for change, and greater support for the businesses of the Village.  By itself, it sounded like a normal and reasonable campaign.  But then other things started to happen.

First, people started posting messages on the Village’s discussion website.  They accused the current Trustees and Village staff of breaking laws.  One of the new Trustee candidates, as well as the new Mayoral candidate (or someone else using his email address) posted comments supporting these allegations.  But the allegations were completely false, as proven by discussions with the Illinois State Board of Elections, the Woodford County States Attorney, and the Village Attorney.  And that proof was provided to the public at a meeting held at the Fire Department.  While a dozen or so people attended, there was no indication that those who were making the accusations, nor the candidates running together, were in attendance.  The fact that these false accusations of lawbreaking had been made and continued to be made after that meeting, constituted an illegal defamation of character know as libel.  To the extent they were spoken, it was also slander.

In the meantime, some of the supporters of the three new candidates were going door-to-door, making claims that the current Village Board was anti-business.  We’ll discuss this in-detail in a future article, but for now, suffice it to say that it was simply not true.  Yet all of this had its effect, and in the election, the three new candidates won.

After the election, the transition went much rougher than usual.  The newly elected Mayor and Trustees challenged existing processes as not being acceptable.  For example, the employee performance reviews and salary determinations, which were completed in just one month the prior year, took three months to complete in 2009, in part because of questioning and bickering about the process, which in the end was done in essentially the same manner as the year before.

As the months went on, respect and decorum amongst the membership on the Village Board deteriorated.  At the Village Board meetings, disagreements became arguments, and personal motivations were challenged.  Rude interruptions of presentations became common.  Sometimes there was very combative and direct language.  When the meetings got out of control, the new Mayor sometimes watched this go on and on.  Even when members of the public addressed the Village Board, the Mayor occasionally responded back aggressively.

The Internet blogging by friends and supporters of the new Mayor and Trustees have continued, and frequently include ad hominem attacks against the original Trustees, misquoting them, and generally demonstrating the online incivility that unfortunately attracts some people. 

Several attempts were made to discuss these problems, one-on-one by original Trustees talking to new Trustees or the Mayor.  Nothing changed because of those initiatives.  We talked to the new Attorney about having an offsite meeting of everyone to go over differences and try to regain civility, but he advised against doing this because of restrictions of the Open Meetings Act.

In conjunction with a new ordinance to change the way our meetings were structured, one of the original Trustees, along with the Village Clerk, drafted a Conduct Code for all Trustees and the Mayor to follow. The Code called for Trustees to abide by Integrity, Honesty, Objectivity, Accountability, and Leadership. It also called for behavior at meetings to include respect for others, refraining from attacking motives, and treating people with dignity.  Passing the ordinance resulted in no immediate change, and very little improvement since. 

We understand that some people may read this article and conclude that this type of behavior is just normal in politics today.  And on a national and state level in the past few years, governmental conduct certainly has gotten worse, as we’ve all seen.  But civility, integrity, and interpersonal respect are still important behaviors for good government.  The 2009 Election moved us away from those important behaviors.  We need to return to them in Germantown Hills.

       Terry Quinn                                                                 Mike Gaetz

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p.s.  Don’t forget to “subscribe” to this newsletter in the box above for email notification and delivery of future articles, or else go to “Germantown Hills:  A Perspective” on your Facebook, and “Like” that community site to receive notifications of future articles in your Facebook News Feed.

p.p.s.  Here is a list of reference links on the need to increase Civility:

iCivility

Civilination

Keep a Civil Cybertongue

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