Recent coarseness of American politics has been escalating, especially since the late ‘60’s when Viet Nam was the center of debate. And debate then was hot and heavy. To the confrontational moments these days, you can often add foul and personal attacks to describe a lot of it.

While our 200+ year history is full of examples stretching back to our founding – George Washington once called the Continental Congress a “residence of the unthinking” – our harshest examples pale in comparison with the British and the French. Verbal attacks on public office holders over there are nothing new. And often not at all civil.

But our citizen criticisms are becoming more frequent from city hall to county courthouse. Several well-known confrontations have even turned to gunfire and murder. The violence and aggressiveness that permeate our society have often made non-conformity to Robert’s Rules of Order the expected rather than the exception.

While I certainly support decorum in public meetings and endorse a lot of methods officials have adopted to deal with it, the little Southern Idaho community of Burley has taken a step too far.

Burley is your typical small Idaho community. About 9,300 souls who live along the famed Snake River. Rural, agricultural, with an air of the normal attitude found in most similar towns – individual independence. Mostly Republican. Heavily conservative.

The city council of Burley seems representative of all that. But an action it recently took is not sitting well along Main Street. Or with me.

The Council has traditionally offered residents a public comment period at its meetings. Those wanting to speak have been limited to three-minutes and have been asked to stick with their points. Both seem reasonable requirements and most people adhere to them. But there are voices – and every council or commission has them – who use the time for a personal grievance tirade and who can be more than a little pointed in their remarks. Often a personal attack or two shows up in these sessions.

Here’s where the Council of the City of Burley, Idaho, and I part company. After several rounds of this incivility, the Council has dropped the citizen comment slot from the agenda. If you want to speak during a meeting, you have to sign up well-in-advance and wait until you’re scheduled at a future meeting. Which is not every week or two in a town of 9,300.

They did this once before in 2009. Same cause. Some of the same people. After a few weeks, and some public complaints, the comment period was reinstated. It should be so again. Quickly.

One advantage of a small community is that you know folks. The good guys and the troublemakers. You can take previous bad actors aside before any meeting, talk to them and assure them – strongly – that order will be maintained. I’ve never been to a council meeting where the police chief or some other sworn office wasn’t in attendance. If you need backup, you got it. And if the warned miscreant breaks the rules, you use ‘em. Order maintained.

If necessary, the mayor can talk to a local magistrate about the issue. Subsequently, those who find themselves in front of the judge on a “disturbing the peace” or “public nuisance” ticket could be relieved of $200-300 as a result of their disruptive and discourteous behavior. Seems to me that would leave an impression the council is serious while maintaining open communication. And civility. Legally.

Cutting off citizen access to elected officials – especially during public meetings – is not a good practice. Nor is setting up a procedural path of hurdles to overcome. Lots of folks – especially in small towns – are on a first-name basis with the mayor or council member. May even be related. Conducting a local council meeting should recognize that wonderful small town advantage and make use of it. Not try to eliminate it.

Lots of folks want to be on a council or commission. Most of those that are work a lot of unpaid hours trying to do a good job. They are due a proper amount of recognition. Citizens need to respect that.

But the elected need to keep in mind the burden of public service is often accompanied by going the extra mile with folks you might otherwise not want to deal with. The oath of office does not make you someone who can conduct official business without public accountability. It does not shield you from citizen reaction – good or bad.

If someone won’t keep the rules and abide by the common laws of courtesy and respect in the conduct of business, every official has tools available to enforce good behavior. It’s been my experience a generous portion of fairness in the conduct of public business will bring citizen support when enforcement to assure that fairness is duly exercised.

Silencing the majority or creating unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for those who respect the rules are unnecessary. And unwanted.

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