As I reflect on ten years of the Vanguard, one issue that I have always had a love-hate relationship with was the notion of civility. The Vanguard came into being with almost a no-holds-barred approach to discourse, both on the articles as well as in the comment section, but over time we have taken a proactive approach to creating a more friendly space for discourse.
It is not that we have completely tamed the beast, but certainly the comment section is a lot more civil than it once was.
I think as I look back, part of my problem with civility was that it often seemed to be a guise for covering up vigorous debate on the issues.
When the new mayor and council were installed in early July, Councilmember Rochelle Swanson made it a point to note how much she enjoyed working with her colleagues, the atmosphere of mutual respect – and the fact that it wasn’t always like that.
The Sacramento Bee, in making their Davis City Council endorsements, noted, “Compared to the acrimonious Davis councils of yore, this is real progress.” They added, “Incumbents Lucas Frerichs and Brett Lee don’t always agree, but both have stressed collegiality…”
Senator Lois Wolk, in the goodbye speech to her son, noted the positive working relationship between the city of Davis and the legislative offices. She noted his “positive outlook for the city of Davis,” stating, “You are upbeat and a champion for the city. It’s because you believe there is an important role that government provides.
“The other thing is the ability to work with your colleagues and your ability to work with others. We don’t talk about that enough,” she said. “Relationships are really the key to being able to achieve your goals. We need that even more now in society.”
She pointed out, “Your ability to work together has resulted in tremendous advances for the city.”
It was a feel good moment for sure, and given that she was praising her own son, a bit awkward, but it does illustrate how far we have come from the days when the Vanguard first started.
In the spring of 2007, then-Councilmember Don Saylor pushed for a more civil approach to public discourse. At the time, the Vanguard criticized the message as not only self-serving, but outright hypocritical.
In February of that year, during a discussion on the Cannery Park proposal, Mr. Saylor spoke from prepared text to suggest: “I want to make one small observation, in our council ground rules, under the first paragraph, it says that each councilmember should treat each other with respect and dignity even when disagreements arise. I feel disrespected and treated without dignity when my motivations are questioned and it is assumed that I am leading to something that I have not said.”
But when newly-elected Councilmember Lamar Heystek put forward a living wage proposal, something that he had campaigned on, Don Saylor was there to rebuke him, saying, “There’s just a number of questions about this. To bring it up as a discussion is appropriate. To bring it up as a full-blown ordinance for a first reading, that’s not talking about policy, that’s talking about politics in a lead-up to an election.”
The first four years of the Vanguard from 2006 to 2010, saw a number of angry exchanges on the council (with Mr. Heystek staying above the fray as a rule). That eventually culminated in the public exchange between then-Mayor Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Sue Greenwald (as captured on the infamous YouTube video by the Vanguard).
The exchange left Ms. Asmundson badly shaken. While many have seen the YouTube video, few will remember what happened behind the scenes in the lobby when the cameras were off. I captured that moment in this article, that was a story I did not tell on Saturday, where I was holding my one-month-old daughter in her baby carrier in one hand while I physically had to separate then-City Manager Bill Emlen from attacking Sue Greenwald with my other hand.
The lack of civility that night was in a way far worse than portrayed in the press – because, at that time, I was the only one who saw just how bad it was. But in another way, it marked a turning point for our community. We reached a low in our communications, in our inability to disagree without becoming disagreeable or personal.
There was a recognition that things had to change and I think it impacted the community and the council. The incident happened in late January 2010, and by July of 2012, the entire council turned over its membership.
The environment on the council had been toxic at the time. There is a saying that the whole is better than the sum of its parts, but in this case the opposite was true – the whole on that council was far worse than the sum of its parts. The council was not just polarized 3-2 on virtually every issue, but the personal lines were far sharper than the ideological fault lines.
Bringing this forward into contemporary discourse, we can see how the lack of civility creates a feedback loop where it becomes a race to the bottom. Disagreement on issues bleeds into a distrust of motivations, personal acrimony, and a lack of working together for a common good.
On the other hand, we can also see by the city of Davis microcosm that these fault lines are not irreparable. Changing the personalities on the council created a new mix that was much more positive.
That change does not fix all of our problems. We still see a community divided on key issues. There are issues that we have not found a way to address to this date.
But the tone and tenor of the council has changed markedly for the better, and that gives us hope that perhaps our leaders at a more national level might also reach their low point and realize that things have to change.
—David M. Greenwald reporting