Think before you speak, or type
Recently discussions at the Camden Board of Selectmen meetings have centered on how public officials should conduct themselves in public. At first, members of the board avoided making direct accusations. Eventually, though, accusations — however politely-phrased — were tossed back and forth.
Talk about conduct has been on the back-burner in Camden for a while, but was brought into sharper focus following elections. Two local ballot items divided the select board, and tension erupted following several letters submitted to The Camden Herald by both sides of the issue. Three selectmen signed a letter encouraging a 'yes' vote on the ordinance changes to signs and non-conforming businesses. Another selectman submitted several letters and created two posts online regarding the issue, urging a 'no' vote. Both sides implied wrong-doing by the other.
The issue here is not so much the fact that they disagree. In fact, a rigorous debate of the issues, both for and against, is sadly missing from many local select board meetings. There's no need for a united front if that means simply rubber-stamping the majority view or issuing a gag order to members who disagree with the majority.
Spirited debate is often beneficial to public officials and the public as long as it does not descend into squabbling or personal attacks. In fact, we think spirited discussions can lead to greater public input and reaction about many topics.
The issue is what are the appropriate ways to express your disagreement?
It would be nearly impossible to address every possible scenario, but general suggestions such as politely agreeing to disagree rather than making petty or personal attacks against each other or members of the public should be considered. Perhaps a policy could be put in place that addresses not only the final decision of the board, but gives voice to the reasons for dissent from those overruled, a kind of minority report. That way, all views are vetted publicly and thought through.
One of the easiest ways to avoid fruitless bickering is to focus on the issues at hand not the people involved. Rather than a civil political discourse, it becomes a circus with public officials trying to one-up each other in an effort to score a point either with other officials or the public.
Social media has its own pitfalls for public officials and many municipalities in Maine have adopted or are considering adoption of social media policies. Particularly for those with social media pages representing municipal departments or organizations, making use of the Internet should be done carefully and with consideration of how it will reflect on the organization. Personal accounts belonging to public officials also should be thoughtfully managed.
Public officials should not have the expectation of privacy. Even at the local level, public officials need to realize the position they vied for and accepted means, that when they speak out on an issue, even just expressing personal opinion, they represent the full board and the community it represents.
Some would say a public official has to have a thick skin, and most do, but the same can't be said about every member of the public. This is true especially when any perceived insensitivity is directed toward them by a public official, particularly in a very public forum like cyberspace.