Civility is a commodity that is becoming increasingly elusive in America. Technological advances allow people to sit alone at computers and anonymously spew hatred on blogs and social media. It’s not much better on our TVs, where reality shows and presidential debates beam nastiness into our living rooms.
Civility is defined as formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. To be civil, one doesn’t have to actually be or feel nice, just to act nice.
Why is that becoming so difficult, even in Alexandria?
Contentious issues have, of course, roiled the Port City for years, from waterfront redevelopment and bike lanes to the city’s fight with the Old Dominion Boat Club. But few issues have raised tempers or created quite the ugliness seen in the debate over redevelopment of Ramsey Homes. At public hearings last September and again Saturday, acrimony was in full flower.
To the uninitiated, Ramsey Homes redevelopment has many complex facets, several in direct conflict with each other. There’s the need for more affordable housing in Alexandria, the desire to preserve historic buildings, the concerns of neighbors affected by a more than threefold increase in proposed density on the site, and a local agency — the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority — that, in an effort to be civil ourselves, we will simply say has underperformed.
The issue is a hot mess, so it’s not surprising that feelings and discussions have been heated. But this is just one of many complex issues before the city, where reasonable, well-intentioned people can hold radically divergent perspectives. Contentious issues will always be with us, but city councilors owe it to their constituents — and each other — to conduct themselves with civility.
Like it or not, city councilors are role models for the community. When they cross the line into incivility, as City Councilor John Chapman did both during Saturday’s public hearing and in his comments on Facebook afterwards, they unfortunately set a tone that others follow.
To be sure, Chapman was not the only person on the dais Saturday and Tuesday who at times strayed from politeness and courtesy. City Councilor Paul Smedberg expressed his frustration at ARHA on Saturday in an openly hostile manner, and, while we applaud his move at Tuesday’s legislative session to rescind Saturday’s vote and send ARHA back to the drawing board for a quick turnaround, his failure to notify all of his colleagues ahead of time seemed like an unnecessary snub.
We encourage the six city councilors and Mayor Allison Silberberg to work harder at their own internal communication and to err on the side of inclusion with each other as well as with the public. Chapman’s exclusion from a meeting in January between the mayor, city manager and ARHA chief was apparently a major source of his frustration on Saturday.
City council is undergoing a transition right now, as Silberberg is in just her second month on the job. Every leader has their own style, and it is clear that Silberberg, members of council and city staff are still sorting out how things are going to operate between them these next three years. Time will help, but so will a concerted effort at being civil to one another.
Incivility is not just impolite. As we saw this week, it’s counterproductive.