Minnesota Cities Magazine

Seeking to Restore Civility

By Andrew Tellijohn Retro illustration of two men smiling at each other over a fence


Remember the days when people said "please" and "thank you"? That kind of civility seems to be a thing of the past in government, including at city council meetings. But many Minnesota cities and the League are working to bring it back. ______________________________________________________

A half-dozen years ago, the City of Maplewood was in the newspapers constantly. Distrust and debate over the use and potential sale of some parkland had the community concerned. The 2005 election brought in a new mayor and two city councilmembers, who hired a long-time political ally as city manager without conducting a search.

The drama that unfolded over the next couple years led to heavy turnover on city staff, as about 70 percent of the management team was fired or left voluntarily, which led the alternative weekly paper, City Pages, to call Maplewood the Twin Cities’ most dysfunctional suburb.

Ultimately, the issues didn’t just make for uncomfortable work days and long, unproductive council meetings. The dissension led to a bevy of lawsuits that jeopardized Maplewood’s standing with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT), and it ground city work to a halt, says Chuck Ahl, who now holds the title of city manager.

Ahl was public works director for the city of 38,000 when the election that brought on the controversy took place. He served as temporary city manager and then assistant city manager through much of the upheaval and the subsequent healing period. He was appointed to his current role in June 2013.

“It didn’t matter what side you were on,” he says. “The way everybody addressed each other certainly didn’t show any respect, and there was no compromise and no attempt to understand the other person’s position.”

Principles of good government
The next election cycle, the tide began turning. The Council was still divided, but the new Council began working with staff to re-establish civility and stability within the city. Even though the economic downturn created tight budgets, Maplewood established a no-layoff policy to help rebuild trust with labor unions and staff.

And the city instituted what it called the principles of good government, which required those debating the issues to do so in a civilized, respectful manner.

“We clearly established rules for how people address the Council, and that bringing up personal agendas was not allowed,” Ahl says. “Those personal issues have no place in a public setting.”

Ahl acknowledges that it may take awhile for the labels from the past to completely disappear, but he believes the issues that once plagued Maplewood’s politics are no longer a problem.

Incivility spreading rapidly

While the situation in Maplewood was highly publicized and perhaps a bit extreme, observers say it’s emblematic of a problem that is popping up in cities all around the state. Dan Vogt, who retired recently after two decades as city administrator in Brainerd and now works as a consultant for Little Falls and Cross Lake, says public employees at all levels used to have more respect from the general public than they do now.

Vogt recalls watching a town hall meeting President Obama conducted in which Obama was practically heckled by an attendee who had not been called on to speak.
Chuck Ahl in
Gladstone Savanna
Preserve, the
parkland that
sparked controversy
and dissension in the
City of Maplewood. ______________________________________________________________

Chuck Ahl in Gladstone Savanna Neighborhood Preserve, the parkland
that sparked controversy and dissension in the City of Maplewood.

Photo by Paul Lundquist

“Is that the type of thing that would have been tolerated 20 or 30 years ago?” Vogt asks. “I doubt it. That’s just incredible to me. That’s a shining example of how uncivil we’ve become.”

He’s seen the same kinds of breakdowns regularly in communication between the public and city officials as well as between councilmembers and staff. Some of it is media driven. Some is the trickledown effect of watching hardline negotiations between highly visible Republican and Democrat officials on the state and national levels.

“They’re taking what they see in the news or the talking heads on television and how they refer to people and how they interact with people,” he says. “That’s another part of the problem. I’ve seen a general deterioration of that discourse.”

Incivility in government has become a prominent enough problem that the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) conducted a panel discussion on the topic at its 2013 Annual Conference and convened a task force to look at the issue, says Kevin Frazell, LMC member services director.

The LMC Civility Task Force is looking into patterns that cause incivility issues to arise and how the League can work to help prevent them from damaging cities. When deliberations go beyond an honest difference of opinion and devolve into personal attacks, it can paralyze the government process and, in some cases, Frazell says, cause staff members to leave.

“Government can’t move forward and deal with issues very well when there is acrimony,” he says.

Retro illustration of two men shaking handsA proactive approach
A few years ago budget cuts drove the City of Brooklyn Park to reconsider how it provides services to its 76,000 residents. In addition to the financial issues, the city was dealing with two high-profile incidents of youth violence and a significant home foreclosure issue during the recent recession. So city officials launched the Community Engagement Initiative and began some proactive community outreach efforts that have turned the situation around.

City Manager Jamie Verbrugge says city staff reached out to residents to establish a core planning team that laid out the vision, mission, and strategic objectives for the community. One of the principles that resulted was that city officials would not make decisions without consulting those who are affected by them.

For bigger issues, the city invites residents to “community cafe” discussions, where citizens can talk over their positions with city staff in a forum that is more casual than a Council meeting. The city then aggregates the information it receives and uses it to make more informed decisions.

These discussions are “focused on having people sit around a table with other members of the community,” Verbrugge says. “It becomes a more thoughtful and, I think, a more constructive way to receive feedback.” Robin Martinson announces
an upcoming event at a recent
meeting of Brooklyn Park�s
Community Engagement
Initiative teams. _____________________________________________ Robin Martinson announces an upcoming event
at a recent meeting of Brooklyn Park’s Community
Engagement Initiative teams.

Photo by Paul Lundquist

The city has also conducted “call to action” discussions with advocacy groups, nonprofits, and other organizations on issues such as domestic and youth violence, Verbrugge says. These help develop “a more community-based approach rather than a city-centric approach.”

Brooklyn Park’s Community Engagement Initiative has received national attention, and survey results indicate that it appears to have dramatically improved the community’s outlook on the city and those working for its betterment. “We’re definitely seeing results,” Verbrugge says.

Communication helps
Communicating directly with the community can be a vital step toward maintaining the public’s trust and diffusing issues that could later create opportunities for uncivilized behavior. And cities are getting better at telling their story and communicating with citizens. That’s a major point in improving civility, says Bob Thistle, who was in city management in Minnesota for 25 years.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, the basic communication tool was the newspaper or maybe a newsletter that went home once a quarter,” Thistle says. “Today cities have websites with all sorts of information. Cities have become much more adept at communicating a story more effectively than we did in the past—because we didn’t have the tools.”

Communication is also important in educating the public about their rights and responsibilities as far as what is expected of their behavior when attending meetings, adds Doug Anderson, former mayor of Dayton who is currently senior partner with Anderson & Orduno, a startup consulting firm that is working with the League and several cities around the state on civility issues.

Anderson suspects that one of the solutions for improving civil discourse at meetings will be better training for mayors and councils on how to communicate those expectations.

“The big jumping-off point where most people have to start is the communication piece and learning how to listen and how to talk to one another,” he says.

Paralyzing effects
It’s critical that cities not allow incivility to continue, Anderson adds. When the problems start to fester and grow, incivility ultimately can create tense government bodies that are unable to govern.

“You become ineffective as a council if you have members that are not agreeing with one another in a constructive way,” he says. “It leads to a breakdown of trust from councilmember to councilmember, from council to staff, from council to the public. And it really erodes the ability to work effectively.”

In some extreme cases, LMCIT had to get involved when councilmembers were doing some unsavory things such as violating the Open Meeting Law or making threats. “Those things can become costly in terms of lawsuits, and insurance premiums can be greatly increased.Illustration of two men shaking hands with text that says LMCIT has dropped coverage in the past of cities that can’t seem to get their act together,” Anderson says.

“That’s been a wakeup call to the cities and their residents that this isn’t a spectator sport or a ‘Jerry Springer’ episode. This is pretty serious stuff.”

One thing is certain, Thistle says. Public discourse must be conducted in a professional manner. He compared the job of chairing a public meeting with refereeing a sporting event. Rules and boundaries must be set in advance and, if people start getting abusive, they must be confronted.

“There is always a tendency not to want to create a confrontation,” he says. “Sometimes people come in [to a council meeting] and they get away with saying things and doing things and they are not called on it.”

Thistle says clear rules must be established upfront and, when someone starts getting abusive, the person should be warned or, in extreme cases, removed from the council chambers.

“The trick is calling people on it,” he says. “It’s like anything else. If you let somebody get away with something, they’ll keep doing it. So there needs to be really clear boundaries established.”

Maplewood’s Ahl agrees. He says it’s important to have rules in place for running meetings, and to adhere to them. Communication is key. Dealing with controversial issues is inevitable in government, but it doesn’t have to lead to discord or lack of trust.

“It’s that issue of making sure you are honest and open,” he says. “Establishing those principles and staying true to those principles, making sure meetings are run respectfully—I can’t say that enough. It’s OK to disagree, but disagreeing disrespectfully is unacceptable.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minn.

Note: See related article "What's Happened to Civility?"

Read the November-December 2013 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.