Dear fellow citizens of San Luis Obispo County,
As the seven elected mayors of SLO County’s cities along with the chair of the county Board of Supervisors, we represent a wide spectrum of political views. In other words, we frequently disagree with each other and with our elected colleagues.
But we are in unanimous agreement on one important point: The caustic incivility across the current political landscape is damaging our democracy — not just at the national level, but also at our local level.
We see danger ahead if we don’t alter course.
The results of the eighth annual national Civility in America survey revealed a record high rate of respondents (75 percent) agree that incivility in America “has risen to crisis levels.” This is true regardless of political affiliation.
Among the survey’s findings: “Over half of respondents (56 percent) expect civility in America to worsen over the next few years. Those who predict a more uncivil future fault several parties, but primarily focus their blame on politicians (75 percent), the Internet/social media (69 percent) and the news media (59 percent).”
That’s why we, as elected officials, have worked together to craft this Regional Code of Civility, which is being considered by 40 elected officials serving on eight elected bodies — the county Board of Supervisors and the seven city councils throughout the county. You can read it in its entirety here: https://slochamber.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Code-of-Civility.pdf
In the code, we pledge to:
▪ Listen first
▪ Respect different opinions
▪ Be courteous
▪ Disagree constructively
▪ Debate the policy, not the person
We invite our elected colleagues, the news media and the public to refer to this pledge and, together with us, hold it as the standard expected of all civic leaders every day from this day forward.
Why do we believe this code of civility is necessary?
As we see it, incivility has become the new normal. And it is having a corrosive effect on our community and on our democracy, sending too many citizens scrambling for the exits.
The Civility in America survey reflects what we have seen in our own community: 60 percent of Americans say incivility has led them to stop paying attention to political debates or conversations. An equal number say incivility is deterring people from entering public service. The survey also shows that the rise of incivility corresponds to lower voter turnout, a truly corrosive effect on the cornerstone of our democracy.
People who have good ideas are declining to share their views, whether in public meetings, private conversations or online, for fear of being insulted or ridiculed. Capable people who might otherwise be effective political leaders decide not to enter the arena because political discourse frequently becomes unnecessarily hostile.
One more downside: Incivility often prevents us from recognizing that others with different views sometimes have a worthy point, and we miss out on good ideas.
In the end, potential leaders and good ideas are benched, and decisions are made without the benefit and wisdom that comes from diverse citizen input.
Some readers might think this code of civility is an infringement on free speech, that it devalues principled positions, or that it’s just about requiring people to be nice.
Respectfully, we disagree. Civility is not about surrender, withholding emotion or stifling debate. It is not about limiting speech. It is not about ignoring bigotry or abandoning beliefs.
We welcome diverse opinions and they should be championed freely and passionately. We welcome fierce disagreement and debate. And we are certain that disagreement based on principles is healthy for our democracy. However, democracy functions best when these passions are focused on debating the issues rather than demonizing people who disagree with us.
While the public and the news media also share in the responsibility for cultivating and reinforcing civility, we know that as your elected representatives, we must lead first by example, and hold each other accountable.
That is why we are speaking out and stepping up, together, to chart a better course for our region. We invite you to join us.
We hope this Regional Code of Civility will encourage more people to step forward with their ideas and opinions and motivate more people to run for office. These are vital steps if we are to reinvigorate our great American experiment — government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Signed by Board of Supervisors Chairman John Peschong; Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill; Atascadero Mayor Tom O’Malley; Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals; Morro Bay Mayor Jamie Irons; San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon; Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin; and Pismo Beach Mayor Ed Waage.