October 23, 2013"Born a perfect lady in an imperfect society, Miss Manners is the pioneer mother of today's civility movement. Now, if she could only persuade people to practice civility as much as they talk about it …"
That introduction to the Miss Manners website always causes me to chuckle a little bit.
For many people of my generation, Miss Manners is a fictional character that our mothers created in order to help us remember that we need to mind our p's and q's. We forget sometimes that there really is a lady out there by the name of Judith Martin who has devoted her life to expanding the general population's understanding of etiquette.
But, anyway, that is kind of beside the point. Sort of.
I'm not here to talk about Miss Manners, but I am here to talk about etiquette and common courtesy, especially in regard to how our leaders treat the communities they serve.
Yes, there is an etiquette to holding a council or board meeting.
There are two things in this life that really bother me when dealing with people in powerful positions. The first is that it is automatically assumed that because a person is in a position to govern others that they are well-qualified and educated in their position and those who are a part of the general public are simply dunces incapable of coherent thought processes. The second is that there always seems to be a disdain for those community members who wish to be a part of the public process.
Why is that?
I attend many meetings each month in Crawford and Floyd counties, and have recognized this problem in both counties. I'm sure it happens in Harrison and a plethora of other counties, as well; however, I don't cover meetings in those counties.
Three months ago I attended a Georgetown Town Council meeting at the Georgetown Optimist Club. I was caught off guard by the open hostility board members often showed to not only the people they represent, but also to each other.
This generally isn't much different than any other meeting I've attended there, except this time was unique.
The president was caught on tape telling a fellow council member to shut up during a disagreement.
That kind of open hostility shows a blatant disregard to the public they serve. If the exchange of ideas cannot be perpetrated during a public and formal council meeting, how are community members supposed to have faith in the council's ability to govern the goings-on of the community as a whole?
If diverse and often unpopular ideas are unable to be heard during a meeting of the minds, it is next to impossible for the community to have faith in its leaders' ability to not only bring diverse ideas to the table, but to support any creative outside-of-the-box thinking.
It's not just Georgetown to which I'd like to draw attention.
I understand these meetings are often held after regular business hours have expired in order to create an environment that is amenable to the general public's right to attend.
In regards to time, the Handbook on Indiana's Public Access Laws states that "the Open Door Law (ODL) does not define any particular time for a meeting as inappropriate. However, a public agency may not delay the start of a meeting to the extent the delay frustrates the public's right to attend and observe the agency's proceedings."
An example given was a board providing notice of an executive session to begin at 4:30 p.m., with a public meeting to follow at 5, however the public meeting is convened instead at 9 p.m. due to the amount of work done in executive session, as being excessive and contrary to the ODL because the delay may have "frustrated the public's right to attend, observe and record the public meeting."
I don't know about anyone else, but my right to attend is frustrated nearly every month at the meeting for the Crawford County Community School Corp. Board of Trustees.
Rare is the occurrence when the board starts at the appointed time.
No, I do not have children who attend CCCSC, nor do I reside within the county; yes, I know it is my job to be there.
I understand that it is my duty to be present at these meetings for the entire duration, no matter how tedious it may seem. I do, in fact, enjoy my job a great deal and it's not the often late start times of these meetings that is the problem, or even that executive sessions run over because there is work that needs to be done.
"Well, if you don't have kids and it's your job, then why are you complaining?"
It is the principal of the situation.
While I may not have kids or live within the county, there are many people who do, and each month I hear the same complaints about how long executive sessions run.
No, it is not going to hurt anything if I get home at 10 or 11 at night because a meeting ran over. However, for some community members, it does.
For example, to the parents of a child in any elementary school within the corporation, it matters. If they want to hear the results of the much talked about feasibility study and how it will affect their student, but the meeting which was posted for 7:15 p.m. doesn't begin until nearly 9, parents often have to leave to make sure homework is finished and everyone is in bed by then.
That's a problem because the overdrawn executive session has interfered with their ability and right to attend the meeting.
Being able to hear members of the board joke and cut-up in the other room is just an added slap in the face.
As leaders, you expect your community to be involved but have created a situation where it is next to impossible for them to do so.
But, I digress. It all comes back to manners. The Golden Rule. Common courtesy. Whatever you want to call it.
Every month I have people asking me to advocate for them, saying things like, "Can't you write something about this?"
Well, yes, I can.
Now, it's up to the community to move forward with it. If you want better for your county, demand better.
For anyone wishing to read up on public access laws, you can do so at www.in.gov/pac/files/PAC_Handbook_09_25_12.pdf.