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Municipal officials seeking more civility and less discord in public life should prepare and follow a consistent written policy for conduct to head off problems with residents and other officials before controversies erupt and bad feelings surface.
This was the advice of local government veteran and former MMA President Jeff Nutting during a March 12 webinar on civil discourse hosted by the Massachusetts Select Board Association.
“You really have to be committed to the cause,” Nutting said. “You have to really say, ‘How are we going to solve this?’ and not just pass a policy and throw it in the drawer. It has to be an active living document. It has to be something that’s used, and something that’s said over and over and over.”
The stressors confronting local officials have only intensified over the past year, Nutting said, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, a strained national political climate, remote governance, environmental challenges, and social media vitriol. Despite the challenges, he said, local officials must work to keep the public conversation respectful.
“You do have to set an example — that’s what leadership is about,” Nutting said. “It’s got to start at the top. … And then hold your own members accountable. Because if you can’t do that, you can’t expect anybody else to follow your lead.”
Officials should look at other communities’ written policies and refer to the MMA’s policy recommendation for civil conduct in developing a written conduct policy, Nutting said. After developing the policy, officials should seek as much community support as possible. Boards and committees should ask appointees to sign it, and a copy should be provided to political candidates. Officials should also set clear communication policies with chief municipal officers and staff, he said.
Nutting suggested that boards and committees hold annual goal-setting meetings and carefully select board chairs. Giving each member a turn may seem fair, he said, but it fails to consider the skill set needed for the role of chair, a position that comes with little or no training. Not everyone has the conflict-management skills to shut down offensive comments or to end public comment when it becomes repetitive.
“You can’t lose control of the meeting,” Nutting said. “Because that’s really the chair’s job.”
To minimize conflict, Nutting said, boards and committees should schedule hot-button issues early in the meeting, before fatigue sets in. They should also post the conduct rules on Zoom for virtual meetings, or hand out copies when in-person meetings resume. If needed, the chair should reiterate the rules throughout the meeting, and call a five-minute recess if proceedings grow especially heated. It’s important to set and maintain expectations.
“Consistency is critical to people’s perception of fairness,” Nutting said. “If you run the meeting the same way, then people think it’s fair, whether they like the answer or not.”
When conflict comes from colleagues, the chair should speak to the abusive member, Nutting said. If that fails, the chair should be prepared to rule them out of order or refuse to recognize them during meetings. If the chair causes offense, or doesn’t prevent others’ attacks, he said, fellow members should approach the chair with their concerns.
In the days before social media, Nutting said, officials might encounter disgruntled residents at the local coffee shop, but the officials generally knew them. Now, social media provides a megaphone, and encourages people who want to pick fights. Local officials should respond neutrally to such posts, by offering to speak on the phone, or by sharing links and factual information. But they should never join the online fray.
“One of the things you have to learn in your career is when just to be quiet,” Nutting said. “What’s the upside to you, what’s the upside to your community, what’s the upside to your committee if you get dragged into some of this stuff?”
Nutting has experienced local government from numerous perspectives. He has served on a select board and school committee, and worked for decades as a town administrator for communities including Stoneham and Franklin, where he spent 18 years before retiring in 2019. Most recently, he stepped in, on a temporary basis, to oversee the Brookline Town Clerk’s Office. He was the MMA’s president in 2009, is a former president of the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association, and served for a decade on the MIIA Board of Directors.
MSA President Michael Bettencourt, who moderated the question-and-answer session, said local officials are eager to move on from an anxiety-filled year. A member of the Winchester Select Board, Bettencourt said he is the only incumbent from his board seeking reelection.
“Not a lot of people are running again for positions that they’ve held for a number of years,” Bettencourt said. “So some of it may just be a generational shift, but I think people are tired. It’s been tough, it’s been emotional. Social media really adds to the anxiety.”
The open positions will allow for new people to get involved, Bettencourt said, but he wants to promote healthy discourse and ensure that “once they connect with government at the municipal level, they’re able to stay.”
• Civil Discourse in Public Meetings – additional resources from speaker Jeff Nutting (723K PDF)
• MMA Policy Committee on Personnel and Labor Relations Best Practice Recommendation: Conduct and Civility of Public Officials (PDF)