In an era of partisan politics and polarized opinions, the San Luis Obispo County supervisors have pledged to do what they can to promote civility in public discourse.
The Board of Supervisors enthusiastically and unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday authored by the San Luis Obispo County League of Women Voters in which they committed themselves “to building a civil political community in which each person is respected and spirited public and political debate is aimed at the betterment of San Luis Obispo County and its people and not the disparagement of those with whom we disagree.”
“It starts with us,” said Julie Rodewald, retired county clerk-recorder. “Each one of us knows what civility is.”
However, several public speakers said they were concerned the resolution could be used to stifle public comment at board meetings. Jeff Edwards of Los Osos said the resolution is hollow and an example of form over substance.
“The Brown Act is the guiding light,” he said, referring to the Ralph M. Brown Act that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in public meetings. “At the end of the day, I can pretty much say whatever I want.”
Board Chairwoman Debbie Arnold said she has made accommodating the public a top priority of her term as chair. “In no way is this intended to intimidate public speech,” she said.
County Counsel Rita Neal said the board’s chairperson has leeway in how the meetings are run and the ability to limit unruly or disruptive behavior. For example, Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chaired the board in 2014, was more aggressive in cutting off speakers who did not address the item being discussed or who talked about issues that are not under the purview of the supervisors.
Although some of their discussions can become heated, supervisors said they are trying to be civil. They said everyone has the right to speak but should do it respectfully.
“We are not proposing a civil discourse police here,” Gibson said.
Tuesday’s meeting was not the first time supervisors have supported the League of Women Voters’ efforts to promote civic discourse. In 2014, they gave the league $1,800 to print brochures, pins, stickers and other materials about civility.
Marilee Hyman, immediate past president of the league, said the three essential qualities of civil discourse are respect, listening and leadership. The Board of Supervisors is the highest elected body in the county and they should set the standard, she said.