Our View: It’s time for more civility in council chambers

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(File photo)

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.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. “the concerns of neighbors affected by a more than threefold increase in proposed density on the site,” To a mere 54 units on a block in an urban area close to a metro station. It is triple because Ramsey homes was so low density – basically a suburban style complex in a city.

    I would suggest the incivility began well before this week – it has been going on for years, with the accusations and insinuations that everyone who supports higher density is corrupt. The time to complain about incivility was when the reputation of Mayor Euille, a good man, was under attack. And Mayor Silberberg and her supporters should have been addressed. Even now this editorial makes no mention of Mayor Silberberg’s public attack on the City Attorney.

    • That’s revisionist history. We had bruising debates in the last 5 years, which sometimes landed in court when it should have been resolved long before that. The former Mayor and Council had a notorious lack of civility but the establishment didn’t notice and it didn’t matter in a one party Council that did not tolerate other voices, even within its own party (which explains why so much ended up in court). In one example, the City ended up suing itself because it was enraged the BZA held it accountable to the law. The City promptly packed the BZA with establishment apparatchiks to make sure that avenue was closed. So please spare us the revisionist history.

      The lats Council meeting was awful and there is plenty of blame to go around. It’s obvious the establishment has not accepted we have a new Mayor, and they made pretty plain they despise her. For her part, the Mayor should have been more temperate regarding the City Attorney. The City Attorney is a good man but he likes playing politics way too much, when he should just focus on being the honest broker. It gets him in trouble now and then.

      It’s always amazing that recently elected officials whine that THEY are the victims of the people they serve.

  2. This editorial does not address the most egregious act of incivility from the past few days–that of the Mayor publicly criticizing the council appointed city attorney in a council meeting for doing his job as well as blaming him in an interview with a Washington Post journalist for her own lack of comprehension. Her public comments at Tuesday’s meeting quite rightly earned her a strong rebuke from three city council members. Prior to this meeting I did not really think that the city council really needed a code of conduct. However, Silberberg’s behaviour on Tuesday has changed my mind. This was conduct unbecoming the office of Mayor of Alexandria.

  3. publius, are you Bill Euille? Speaking of civility, how about the arha chairman of the board calling the neighbors racists then only apologizing to Council and not them afterward. The city attorney has “underperformed” for a very long time and especially on Saturday for giving incorrect and conflicting guidance. He should seek employment elsewhere. Have a splendid day!

  4. Civility is certainly needed by ALL, not just those pointing fingers at the Mayor, who I admit can not proceed to run City Council members as anyone but one of seven Council voices.

    Councilman John Chapman certainly went on an embarrassing public tirade regarding an un-advertised meeting the Mayor had at the February 20 meeting. I don’t see anyone calling Councilman Chapman out on here but he should be. Just as bad, he took it to his then Alexandria Councilman Chapman Facebook page. Incredibly poor high school vitriol ensued. He now has taken off his affiliation with Alexandria City Council but not his remarks.

    There is plenty of blame to go around here. Even the past mayor was known to have private get it done meetings yet no one called him out publicly. It’s a lopsided call out and one that does great damage to our City in the big picture.