Politics & Government

Local League of Women Voters aims for civility at public meetings

From left, supervisors Adam Hill, Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold ask questions of staff during a May hearing on the proposed Las Pilitas quarry.
From left, supervisors Adam Hill, Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold ask questions of staff during a May hearing on the proposed Las Pilitas quarry. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County has taken on a big challenge. They want to improve civil discourse during public meetings.

The nonpartisan group has been working on this subject for the past two years but has made it their main focus this year. On Tuesday, county supervisors will consider adopting a resolution by the group promoting civility in conducting business with elected officials, county staff and the public.

“This is not a whim; this is a passion,” said Marilee Hyman, immediate past president of the League. “Civil discourse is necessary to make democracy work.”

Supervisors are expected to approve the resolution. Last year, they voted unanimously to give a $1,800 grant to the League to fund its civil discourse campaign.

The League used the money to print 10,000 copies of a brochure summarizing its civility program as well as buttons and stickers saying “I Heart Civil Discourse,” which they encourage people to wear to public meetings.

The brochure defines civil discourse as “courteous, constructive communication characterized by mutual respect, fairness, and attentive listening.” Acts of incivility at meetings includes violence, threats, personal attacks and name calling.

“It’s OK to disagree, but it’s not okay to be disagreeable,” said Emily Penfield, chairwoman of the League’s civil discourse task force.

On July 10, they will attend a luncheon of seven mayors in the county and ask for permission to make similar presentations to all the city councils in the county as well as some of the school district boards of directors.

They are also planning to hold a public workshop on parliamentary procedures later this year. The League held one of these workshops two years ago that attracted some 50 people, including elected officials; they handed out copies of Robert’s Rules of Order, which is a summary of parliamentary procedures.

League officers said they decided to start with the Board of Supervisors because they are the highest elected body in the county. Their meetings also tend to be contentious.

“We are starting at the top because we need the leaders at the top to set an example,” Hyman said.

The Board of Supervisors is split between conservative supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton and liberal supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson with moderate conservative Frank Mecham often serving as the swing vote on controversial issues.

Arnold, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, said she fully supports the idea of civil discourse and looks forward to the board’s discussion Tuesday.

“I can say that as chair I have tried very hard to make the public feel welcome and to encourage them to come to public comment and express their views,” she said. “I am happy we are going to discuss this.”

Hill acknowledged that he can be pugnacious at times, but said he only does so in response to personal attacks. For example, he and Gibson have been accused of being in a conspiracy with the United Nations to destroy property rights in the county, an accusation Hill calls ridiculous.

“People have come to meetings and said incredibly nasty things about board members, staff and their family members as well,” he said. “If you criticize that you are accused of being uncivil, and I reject that.”