It took the Santa Monica City Council more than six months to synchronize with the United States Conference of Mayors, but the City’s public officials finally endorsed a civility accord to be in effect at all public meetings in Santa Monica.
Brought to council members by Mayor Richard Bloom and Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis as a discussion item at their July 26 meeting, the civility accord was formally introduced by the Conference of Mayors on Jan. 19, almost two weeks after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (R-Ariz.) and a federal judge, among others, were shot at a public event in Tucson, Ariz. Giffords, who was reportedly targeted for assassination, was among the 14 injured; another nine were killed in the melee, including the federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.
In response, the Conference of Mayors took action to prevent a similar tragic event from occurring again. The goal is to ensure that public forums such as council meetings, town halls, political rallies, and the like, would be used for healthy and positive public debate.
“We believe that because mayors are the elected leaders closest to the people, restoration of civility must begin with us,” the accord reads. “We are in a unique position to have a positive impact on behavior – individual and collective – and to lead by example. While the tragedy in Tucson is the impetus for this accord, it represents a commitment that must live on in every mayor in our nation from this day forward.”
The Civility Accord pointed out six principles it seeks to uphold at all community-based events involving public discourse among citizens, whether or not a public official is formally present. Those principles include: respecting the rights of Americans to hold differing opinions; avoiding “rhetoric intended to humiliate, de-legitimatize, or question the patriotism of those whose opinions are different” from others; striving to understand differing perspectives; tactfully choosing what words to say before uttering them; speaking truthfully, without distortion, in a non-accusatory manner; and, speaking out “against violence, prejudice, and incivility in all of their forms, whenever and wherever they occur.”
Addressing concerns that it may infringe upon First Amendment freedom of speech protections, both Bloom and Davis said the Civility Agreement will greatly enhance dialogue in Santa Monica.
“Civility is really the hallmark of having a good and honest discussion. I think (the accord) will, ultimately, not only make these meetings more pleasant, but actually lead to better policy,” Davis said. “This is, in no way, intended to stifle criticism of the council or criticism of the policies adopted by the city. I think this actually enhances the First Amendment. When discourse gets uncivil we start talking about who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, and people are afraid to express their opinion.”
Bloom said Santa Monica residents have a solid reputation for being very active in local government and community affairs and the Civility Agreement will not negatively affect that level of involvement.
“We’ve had an extraordinarily high level of discourse in this community. By bringing this (accord) to the council, in no way … diminishes the high level of that discourse,” he said.
Similar thoughts were echoed in the Civility Agreement, which indicated public dialogue is, at times, not occurring in the most ideal of situations and may possibly lead to a stifling of free speech.
“Regardless of what the motives behind the tragedy in Tucson might have been, it occurred in an atmosphere in which public discourse is often confrontational and lacking in civility. We should use this event as a point of departure, to recommit ourselves to building a more civil society in which each person is respected and public and political discourse are aimed at the betterment of our nation and its people and not the destruction of those with whom we disagree.”
With the adoption of the Civility Agreement, City staff is directed to review civility agreements of other communities with a recommendation of how to specifically implement in Santa Monica the wide-ranging talking points of the Conference of Mayors accord.