Arnold Is Focusing on Civility in Public Meetings
City officials say council members and the public have a right to speak out, but should do so respectfully.
Arnold City Administrator Matt Unrein places a premium on civility.
That’s why he invited Kirkwood's city clerk to speak to city council members about security and constituent interaction at a recent work session.
Kirkwood was the scene of a shooting rampage that left six people, including the gunman, dead on Feb. 7, 2008. Two police officers, two city council members and the city public works director were killed. Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda was critically injured and died seven months later of complications from his injuries. Authorities said the gunman, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, apparently targeted public officials he had sparred with in the past.
In Arnold, the city has posted on its website a white paper from the Institute for Local Government titled “Everyday Ethics for Local Officials.” The paper discusses the concepts and methods for promoting civility at public meetings both from the public and from elected officials.
Over the past year, there have been instances in which civility has broken down during Arnold City Council meetings. Members of the public have been asked to leave for uttering profanities and council members have complained about receiving invective letters. Some have also complained about the lack of civility shown between office holders.
Unrein says it’s important that divergent opinions have an opportunity to be heard, but that they be shared in a respectful manner.
“It’s not just appropriate," he said. "I think it’s necessary that people come and express their opinions and let their thoughts be known, but that they do it appropriately, and that goes for the city as well. I think it’s important that the city council and mayor acknowledge and speak respectfully and hear divergent opinions.”
Arnold City Attorney Bob Sweeney says the impetus behind the emphasis on civility goes back to council meetings over the course of the past year in which debate degraded into personal attacks on office holders or city employees.
“There were a number of council meetings that got out of control, and it turned rather personal and nasty and not really based on any kind of facts,” Sweeney said. “It got so ugly that there was a determination made by the mayor and the administration that it was just not the way you’re supposed to get business done in a democracy. You need to work out your problems in a civil manner without name calling or hyperbole.”
Mayor Ron Counts declined to comment on the issue, and referred Patch to Unrein.
Since raising the issue, Unrein said: “Everyone has taken a big step forward. Everyone is striving to work together and respect each other’s opinions and do what’s best for Arnold. I think that’s great for our community.”
Ward 2 Councilman Jim Edwards says the council is working on improving the tone of discourse between council members and with the public.
“It started coming up at the council meetings,” Edwards said. “Some people would come up and start getting a little hostile at the microphone and some of us, I guess, got a little hostile back. Mostly we’re trying to get people that come up to be civil to us and for us to be civil back.”
Ward 1 Councilwoman Doris Borgelt has seen constituents lash out at the council and believes that is part of a healthy public discourse.
“People have a right to say what they want to say,” Borgelt said. “They’re elected officials; if they don’t’ like it, that’s just tough. I think the people we are representing have a right to express their opinion.”
But Borgelt says council members need to set an example by treating each other and the public with respect.
“There have been many instances in the past where council members made faces when not only the public is speaking, but when another council person has an opposing view,” Borgelt said.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Cricky Lang says she has been frustrated by members of the public lashing out at the council or city staff on a particular issue only to leave the meeting before the discussion was concluded.
“There have been a couple of times that things have been said out of line by a couple of council people,” Lang said. “But for people to come in and dog us or yell at us and then not even stick around to see what’s done is really uncivilized.”
Civility is a two-way street, Ward 4 Councilwoman Sandra Kownacki says.
“It has to do with pretty much everyone -- people that are attending council meetings, as well as us toward the citizens,” Kownacki said. “Sometimes people write letters and they’re kind of critical. I’m sure sometimes council people do things too that people take offense to. It’s just a general approach. I think it has to do with respect in dealing with each other. I think it’s just a mutual thing that people should be respectful of each other and what their opinions are. If you disagree, that’s fine, but do so in a respectful way.”