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Bar wants civility again in civics

The Florida Bar launches a campaign to encourage respect between elected officials and the public and keep political debates from turning personal.

By BRIDGET HALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2000


INVERNESS -- The clashing of ideas is nothing new at city council or county commission meetings. But the Florida Bar is now offering advice to the officials and residents who find themselves butting heads at public meetings:

Keep it clean.

The Bar has sent out plaques and proclamations to nearly 500 cities and counties statewide declaring May "civility month," a reminder not to let political debates turn personal.

The proclamation, which the Citrus County Commission will vote on today, may be a symbolic gesture, said Bradenton lawyer Mark Barnebey, founder of the civility campaign. But the mere mention of civility is sometimes all the reminder people need, he said.

"In the areas where I've made presentations and accepted the proclamation, there has been some discussion about it, even if it's joking like, "We need to be civil; it's civility month,' " said Barnebey, chair of the Bar's City, County and Local Government Law Section. "Hopefully, that will rub off a little bit."

Barnebey got the idea for civility month after sitting through emotionally charged land-use hearings while he was Manatee County's chief assistant county attorney, a post he held for 13 years before stepping down last October.

"I noticed that the demeanor of the crowd had been less and less respectful, and that intimidates people from getting up to talk," he said. "It makes public discourse much more difficult to hold."

The civility month proclamation urges residents to show respect for one another, and an accompanying gold-toned plaque carries a pledge of civility and a quote from Abraham Lincoln: "Politeness costs so little."

The words resonated with the Crystal River City Council, a board that has seen plenty of political battles deteriorate into personal attacks, council member Mike Gudis said. He said that months before the council passed the civility proclamation May 8, the board members made their own pledge to be more civil.

"I think the statement we're trying to make is that we can disagree but not be disagreeable," Gudis said. "Obviously, we can't agree among ourselves on every subject, but if we can handle it in a civil way, we can get a lot more done."

The proclamation came too late for the Inverness City Council to act on this month, so Mayor Joyce Rogers got permission from the local section of the Florida Bar to extend civility month into June.

"At every single meeting, the general public and even the elected officials have the tendency to vent on issues," Rogers said. "This brings us back to the reality and humanity of how we ought to be to each other."

County Commissioner Gary Bartell said courtesy is nothing new at commission meetings, and several regular speakers said the board has always treated them with respect.

"I remind people that government is no more than citizens acting on citizens' behalf," Bartell said. "Common sense tells you that you need to work with elected officials, and our citizens have always been very respectful."

"(The commissioners) haven't always done what I would have liked, but they have always been very courteous," Lecanto resident Chris Lloyd said. "I think that you kind of respond in the same manner in which you are treated."

This is the first year for the Florida Bar's civility campaign, and Barnebey hopes it turns into an annual event. He said the Bar spent about $10,000 this year on furnishing civility plaques to the city councils and county commissions across the state.

Looking ahead to next year's civility campaign, Barnebey already has a target in mind.

"We're going to start looking at other (governing boards)," he said. "Perhaps we'll address school boards next year."

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