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September 21, 2005

One Small Step for Civility

Kevin E. Dayhoff

"In a decent society that wishes to survive as a self-sustaining democracy, there must be a high degree of civility, because that mirrors the respect that we have not only for our constitutional order but for our fellow citizens."

Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court of The United States said those words in a 1996 speech at the Emory University Law School.

It is no longer enough to be the best or right, you've got to be civil and in the face of difficulty, always accept personal responsibility.

Being a "really nice person" is never an excuse for a mistake or failure to perform, but building up goodwill, in the bank of personal relationships and citizen service always goes a long way to getting past difficult times.

Somehow, in the last several years, the goodwill bank in Frederick got overdrawn and then it went bankrupt, crashed and burned.

In today's increasing complex and difficult world, citizens want to hold local government in high regard. Citizens want to believe that locally elected officials are in office to make things better.

When citizens attend a meeting that resembles "The Jerry Springer Show," they lose faith and hope. The partisan faithful take solace in the inside baseball of who is right and who is wrong; but for the most part, a majority of the citizens really don't give a rat's tail whose fault it is, they just want "it" fixed.

Somewhere in the past number of years, "it" stopped being about Frederick and became "all about me."

Hue and cry over the lack of civility in government is an overused mantra repeated so often in today's politically caustic times that no one understands what it means any longer. It has been reduced to a trivial token esoteric intellectualism, pulled out of a convenient box situated conveniently near the keyboard as an excuse to explain the lack of results and performance on the part of local government.

That is, until the public gives everyone a wake-up call and manifests its unhappiness at the voting booth. Then it becomes real for everyone, except - of course - for insiders who still can't accept personal responsibility and certainly don't want to be nice about the results.

In most cases, a person runs for elected office because they want power; often more power than they deserve or is possible at the local level.

The key question is does this or that candidate for office want power in order to serve, make a difference and a contribution; or do they want to fill a hole in their psyche. With the later, disagreement becomes a mortal affront. Frustration leads to anger and increased obsession with control and micromanagement.

Civil debate, discussion and disagreement are appropriate among our elected leadership. Civility begins in how we treat each other. Poise and professionalism among elected public servants does not allow for the politics of personal destruction to be aimed at an elected official of a lower office, an appointed official or anyone who happens to disagree about the best course of action with respect to a particular community challenge.

Displays of anger, rudeness, ridicule, impatience, and a lack of respect and personal attacks detract from the open exchange of ideas, prevent fair discussion of the issues, and can discourage individuals from participation in government. It is then that citizens become disenfranchised with the very local government that they expect to better their quality of life.

Most power struggles are typically personality driven and have nothing to do with serving citizens.

No individual leader has the magic bullet to address all the problems of any particular municipality in Maryland without vision and an obsession to serve, instead of a narcissistic obsession with themselves.

In our state, municipalities are the red-haired stepchild of the Maryland General Assembly and county government. Increased congestion and complexity, population concentration, aging and strained public infrastructure, unfunded mandates, and increased demands for service from an increasingly agitated and frustrated citizenry are commonplace. Municipal revenues, support from state and federal government and tolerance for the challenges of towns and cities, are on the decrease.

Elected leadership can take out their frustrations on each other, or in Frederick's case - anything that moves. Or they can spend the same amount of energy and be nice about it all, take personal responsibility and role up their sleeves and get to work on solutions as opposed to working on who did them wrong and why it isn't fair or their fault.

Frederick needs a leader that is accessible and will facilitate an open exchange of ideas, fair and civil discussion of the issues, and can encourage citizen participation. The goal is not merely to survive - but to thrive.

By working together, everyone can do better.

The citizens of Frederick took one step closer to the solution last week.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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