Tom Fulks

Who would take issue with request for civility? COLAB, for one

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

If you can’t get along with the League of Women Voters, it’s a clear signal you probably can’t get along with anybody.

The LWV — born in 1920 during the women’s suffrage movement, assiduously polite and nonpartisan — has been waging a campaign to convince local elected bodies to adopt a set of voluntary “civility” principles to help return our public discourse to more genteel times.

Anyone who’s been to a meeting within the past few years of the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors — or one of the regional bodies, such as the county Air Pollution Control District or a local city council meeting — knows how truly ugly some people can be when making public comments.

I wonder sometimes, “Do you talk to your mother with that mouth?”

Supervisors recently voted unanimously to adopt a symbolic resolution doing nothing more than asking people to be nice and stay on topic when addressing elected bodies. Who could object to that?

The Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, of course. COLAB — a front group for developers masquerading as farmers — seemed particularly affronted by the LWV’s suggestion that relevance and civility are worthy ideals.

COLAB was joined by the usual assortment of gripers who routinely abuse the public comment period to wage personal wars against anyone they believe victimizes them in one form or another. They claimed the LWV’s resolution suppresses their free speech.

Their self-pitying feedback loop of background noise is now common at public meetings. They’ve so marginalized themselves over the years that few people pay attention anymore.

Public comment before elected bodies is a right in California. It’s telling, though, that COLAB and its cohorts indignantly object to being called out for their routinely confrontational and aggressive public comportment.

My old pal Dewd MacDougal likens them to recidivist gas passers. It’s usually the offender who first raises the odious alarm, attempting to deflect blame, he says.

“The smeller’s almost always the feller,” Dewd often says.

I can’t disagree.

COLAB is the feller, directly responsible for most of the dyspepsia that has nearly consumed public meetings in SLO County, whether it’s the Board of Supervisors, an advisory council or whatever. Until COLAB showed up in SLO County a few years ago, public meetings were practically always civil and polite.

Today, we seldom find a public meeting without someone obnoxiously flinging “free speech” denigrations at elected officials, government staff or anyone with whom they disagree. It’s their right.

As it’s everyone else’s right to say, “Enough!” It’s gotten so bad in SLO County that the LWV felt compelled to intervene with a token, pro-forma plea for civility to which few in their right mind would object.

Which, of course, is why COLAB and its fellow fellers object.

In its weekly newsletters, COLAB claims the LWV is up to no good, with headlines like “Which Planet Was the League On?”

COLAB dismisses the LWV thusly: “It does not cite any data demonstrating that the conduct of meetings of the Board of Supervisors, regional agencies, various city councils, special districts, or school boards are characterized by uncivil behavior by disruptive citizens or public officials.”

COLAB’s belligerence toward the LWV harks back to a Supreme Court case on the definition of obscenity, in which Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped, “I know it when I see it.”

We all know incivility when we see it, every week. It doesn’t have to be quantified to COLAB for the LWV to ask this outfit and its fellow fellers to behave civilly.

In a classic feller-style deflection, COLAB complains that it’s actually supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill, and San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx, who are uncivilized, citing a recent meeting of the county APCD to discuss dust from the Nipomo Dunes.

Apparently, COLAB believes it was impolite for them to ask a state bureaucrat if he was representing his agency, the California Geological Survey, or himself when railing against the APCD.

Turns out he was speaking for himself — on state time, according to a letter of apology to Gibson from his boss, state Geologist John Parrish.

The state worker’s “breach of professional conduct irreparably tarnished his abilities to conduct constructive discussions with scientific objectivity,” Parrish wrote.

So, when local officials expose mendacity by asking pointed questions, COLAB cries persecution.

But when COLAB and fellow fellers act loutishly, it’s “free speech.”

Contrary to the paranoid ravings of COLAB and fellers, local government isn’t trying to limit speech.

In requesting civility, it’s merely asking, “Can’t you get along — with anybody?”

Apparently not.