Where’s the civility?

The Chico City Council needs a refresher course in proper public discourse

During the first City Council meeting of 2015, George Gold gave a fantastic invocation, the best one I can recall hearing during my many years of covering such meetings. The written speech included a couple of lines that in hindsight seem prescient.

Gold, president of the Atheists of Butte County, was delivering the city's first-ever secular invocation: “Let us open our hearts to the inherent dignity and worth of each person in our community,” Gold implored. “I hope we can appreciate and realize our differences of race and religion or lack of religion.”

A couple of council members who evidently couldn't put their religious differences aside—Andrew Coolidge and Sean Morgan—were no-shows during Gold's poignant address. But they weren't absent that night; they took their seats immediately afterward. Both got called out for disrespecting Gold and the rest of the secular community, but that didn't stop them from doing so again when Gold came back to give a second invocation. That time, Morgan and Coolidge sat at the dais, but played with their electronic devices or as though nobody was speaking.

And so goes the behavior of the current panel, whose members—the majority of them, anyway—are in desperate need of lessons in restraint and respect for their colleagues and the community. They also need a refresher course on how to serve the entire city, not just the folks who contributed to their campaigns or Christians or some other special-interest group.

On Tuesday, the City Council discussed implementing a code of conduct policy. The panel took a look at a draft policy that was in many ways vague and also redundant, considering the existing state and federal laws. The discussion got kicked down to the city's Internal Affairs Committee, so here are a few of my suggestions based on observation:

• No swearing from the dais. Considering we've heard an F-bomb (Morgan) and an S-bomb (Reanette Fillmer), this one is a no-brainer.

• No whispering to one another at the dais. Members of the council aren't in high school, although they often act like it.

• No eye-rolling, sighing, smirking, snickering or signaling to members of the gallery.

• No berating city staff (constructive criticism is fair game). Randall Stone made this mistake twice.

• No lambasting council colleagues. Mayor Mark Sorensen has done this more than once, going after Ann Schwab and Stone.

I could go on an on, and I'm evidently not alone in recognizing the poor decorum. Margaret Swick, president of the Butte County League of Women Voters, commended the council on considering implementing a policy. She noted that the league has helped write policy on civility and civil discourse around the nation.

In the case of the City Council specifically, the local league would like to see its members steer clear of their iPads and cellphones when citizens speak, because it sends a message of disinterest. The organization also would like to see respectful body language and facial expression.

“Civility is an important lubricant in a robust and flourishing democracy,” Swick said.

I concur.