Kingston officials say they want to restore community spirit and mutual respect in the town’s public spaces by adopting a code of civil conduct for public meetings and other interactions between town representatives and the public.
“You can’t do the town’s business if you’re having shouting matches,” Selectwoman Sandra MacFarlane said last week.
Officials said the code would be a written statement of behavioral standards applying to all government boards and any interactions between the representatives of the town and the public. It would demand that town officials and employees behave in ways that are professional, courteous, and appropriate. It would also call on members of the public to behave civilly and respectfully toward town representatives and toward one another in town government settings.
Town Administrator Robert Fennessy said he’s working on fine-tuning the language of the proposed civil conduct code, in conjunction with the town’s general counsel and labor counsel, to be presented to selectmen for a vote at their meeting on Tuesday.
Fennessy said civil conduct is “common sense,” but the adoption of a townwide code would also give officials and residents something in writing to refer to if a problem arises.
While the draft of the code he’s working on does not include any sanctions, Fennessy said that disciplinary procedures already exist for town employees. As for sanctions for inappropriate conduct by members of the public or town board members, those issues may come up at Tuesday’s meeting when selectmen discuss the recommended code.
Without pointing to any single incident or naming names, officials backing the idea of a code say a loss of civility has affected the town’s ability to conduct public business.
“I have been present at a meeting, and presiding over a meeting, where residents have been disrespectful,” MacFarlane said. “And I have been present where even board members have been disrespectful on certain occasions.”
In addition to rude or insulting language at public meetings, officials say hostile and even threatening behavior sometimes mars dealings between town employees and residents.
Rudeness and hostility is practically a summer ritual at the transfer station, according to the town’s parks superintendent, Paul Basler, who recently told the Board of Selectmen that employees have been verbally abused for enforcing regulations over the use of dump stickers.
Confrontations at the transfer station happen in July, MacFarlane said, when new dump stickers go into effect. To help enforce the rules — residents must have a valid sticker attached to their vehicle to dump trash at the transfer station — the town posts a police officer there for the first few weeks of the new fiscal year. When the police leave, incidents occur.
“I witnessed a resident behaving very disrespectfully and very hostilely toward an employee,” MacFarlane said. “It’s not one group or one person. It’s an overall lack of respect.”
While in the case she observed the town employee “handled it very well,” MacFarlane said, there have also been instances when town representatives have not behaved well toward citizens.
“We’ve had a few Kodak moments,” agreed Selectman Dennis Randall, who said Americans generally need a “civics class” on the duties and responsibilities that go along with the rights enjoyed by citizens of a free society.
‘I have been present at a meeting . . . where residents have been disrespectful. And I have been present where even board members have been disrespectful on certain occasions.’
People have the right to speak freely, to participate in public meetings, to question official actions and policies, and in towns like Kingston to vote directly on the town budget and other proposed actions, but “they have a responsibility to be courteous and thoughtful,” Randall said.
“We’ve had people appear in an open forum with an ax to grind and a bone to pick and not be courteous in their way of expressing it,” Randall said. “I think there is a need for a reminder of the need for civility.”
The code the board will discuss is a general statement rather than a set of rules, he said.
You can be outraged over the price of a drug, he said, to cite an example from ordinary experience. “But do I take it out on the poor cashier?” he asked. The answer clearly is no. “You treat people the way you want to be treated,” Randall said. “End of story.”
Outbreaks of incivility at public meetings and other local government interactions are not limited to Kingston.
Officials throughout the state have complained of a coarsening of conduct at public meetings, leading to suspicion and hostility along with expressions of narrow self-interest by some citizens. In Scituate, public skepticism over town officials’ explanation of a water quality problem and their plan to fix it turned nasty at a recent selectmen’s meeting.
Not only did dissatisfied residents fail to believe officials’ explanation for the discolored water, they demanded to be first in line when officials explained their plan to fix it.
“They said, ‘We want to be done first,’” Scituate Selectman John Danehy said last week. “The whole town needed it. We can’t pick one location.”
Rude and hostile behavior sometimes comes from residents who have not been involved in town government or local issue issues and “don’t know a lot,” Danehy said. A lack of civic experience and knowledge sometimes turns angry minds to suspicion and hostility, he said.
After some bad meetings, Danehy said, he’s found himself asking, “Did I just go through that? Are you kidding? It’s stressful.”
Other instances of incivility in area communities include a furious resident turning over a table at a Hanson health board meeting, leading to a near-melee, and the dismissal of one Quincy city councilor by another as a “[expletive] clown.”
“People have a right to express their ideas and feel they will be free of harassment, and without fearing a lack of respect,” Fennessy said. The idea, he said, is, “Let’s do the work of the town and do it in a respectful way. It’s more common sense.”
The idea of a townwide code of civility appealed to him, Danehy said, especially with meetings where tough issues are addressed, such as one to make a decision on the location of a proposed cellphone tower that’s on his board’s agenda. “But where do you get it?” he asked.
MacFarlane said she researched codes of conduct from communities “both near and far” and “tailored it toward Kingston.”
“I have always tried to get the community spirit back in town,” said the selectwoman, who is in her ninth year on the board. “We’re going to get back on track. I know we can do it.”Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.