In Search of a Civil Government

Two nights ago I attended a public hearing in Asheboro where Randolph County considered approving a new landfill next to its old landfill. Granted, landfill hearings generate their share of emotion, but civility is civility and this hearing was in short supply.

[Fair disclosure: the county is my client]

According to the Courier Tribune article, “several of the supporters were heckled loudly.” It’s true. Landfill opponents loudly booed some who voiced landfill support and cheered on cue for comments against the proposal. One opponent shouted angrily and uncontrollably at the commissioners from a podium that was only a few feet away. Others spoke in tones of voice that were derisive, condescending and snide. At least one in six speakers came from out of county. [I only address here the manner of communication, not the substance of the comments or the substance of the decision.]

Our country was built and thrives on public discourse by the wheelbarrow load. Bull horns, shouting and name-calling have their place in our parks, political parades and public corners, and those methods of communicating are a valuable part of our tradition. But there are lines you don’t cross. Once you enter the governmental chambers, catcalls and boos are inappropriate and disrespectful of the offices our elected officials hold.

Does that make me conservative and old school? Probably. After all, I’m one of the few who still thinks you should dress respectfully when coming to speak at a public hearing, and that means tucking in your shirt, no T-shirts with beer company logos, and no flip flops.

The Randolph commissioners are dedicated public servants who work hard to do their job and they did nothing to deserve what they went through.

There are few lawyers who have been in as many different hearings in as many different places as I have, and my experience Monday night was not the norm.

Case in point. As I write this I have just returned from a town council meeting in the Town of Wentworth, the capital seat of Rockingham County, and the contrast between tonight and Monday night is stark. I’ve had the honor of serving as Wentworth’s attorney or supervising attorney for more than ten years, and I’ve previously described their meetings as reminding me of a scene in a Norman Rockwell painting.

In more than ten years I have never heard a member of the public speak in anything but civil tones. Some citizens come to council meetings just because they want to know what’s going on in their community. Council members are glad to see each other and have been known to hug in greeting. Votes do not follow partisan lines, and you never witness posturing for the media. Political humility is the norm.

Tonight the retiring town administrator gave her final “budget message” and took the opportunity to make some predictions for Wentworth’s future, including the prediction that “a restaurant” may soon come to Wentworth. “A restaurant.” I noted the singular description expressed with small town hope and gratitude.

Tonight was also special because Ms. Powell, one of the council members, just turned 90 and there was cake and punch to celebrate.

Here’s to more governmental meetings in the style of Wentworth. Here’s to the tradition of civil discourse we all should cherish.

And here’s to Ms. Powell serving at least until she’s 100.

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