Matthew J. Kelly
The current state of civil discourse brings out a clear point of agreement: there is virtually no civil discourse.
The focus is no longer on solving problems, but on using them to discredit and marginalize those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately, we see more of it at the local level. How can we, as a community, overcome this attitude and refocus on finding solutions to the problems of the day?
Before a conversation can begin, we need to make the information available for the public to consider. The information published in the media generally concerns the times of public meetings. These provide basic information but little context and are sometimes difficult to understand. In most cases, the public does not receive relevant information until the evening of the hearing. This eliminates any semblance of public discourse. It is only when the public has the opportunity to review all relevant information that we can hope to have a constructive dialogue.
Let’s start with the newsletters and fact sheets included with utility bills. Let’s create podcasts or use Facebook live to provide updates. Survey Monkey can be used to help determine what information may be needed or clarified. Here are some things the local government could use to better prepare the community. The public must have time to digest the information before having to comment on it.
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The local press must also increase its information efforts. It is not enough to report on a vote after the fact. The media must inform and encourage the community to participate before a vote. It is not enough to cite those responsible. Asking follow-up questions of officials to expand or defend their statements helps to better understand the issue at hand. Give citizens a chance to go beyond the superficial.
Of course, an even better approach is for elected officials to speak directly to the public.
There are many civic and community organizations: neighborhood associations, rotating clubs, parent/teacher groups, and professional organizations. These are all places that offer elected officials the opportunity to directly engage the public. Elected officials should be prepared to meet outside their chambers, at times convenient to those they serve, to present issues and options, listen and receive community feedback in a more informal setting.
They are also opportunities to benefit from the expertise within our community. All parties should have the opportunity to participate and all should give the positions of others the consideration they expect their own.
Diversity of perspectives is necessary if we are to successfully overcome challenges. Different viewpoints introduce us to concepts we might not have considered, test our positions, and help us refine them. By responding to concerns and answering questions from others who may challenge our position, we build understanding and consensus. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, it is through argument and debate that the best solutions arise. As long as they focus on the problems
Regardless of race, gender, age or perspective, everyone has something to contribute. We must be ready to listen, ask questions and consider alternatives. We may disagree, but we must do so with respect. Explain why without pejorative adjectives. The questions are for discussion, not the speaker. The democratic process is not meant to be about winning or losing; but rather to reach a community consensus on the solutions to the challenges we face.
There never will be, and we shouldn’t expect a full deal. Once a decision is made, participants should feel that they have received the necessary information, that they have been listened to with respect, that their concerns have been considered and their questions answered, and that they have at least understood the final decision.
It is through this process that we can move forward as a community and manage the challenges ahead.
Matthew J. Kelly is an at-Large member of the Fredericksburg City Council.