Monday, April 10, 2006

Please hold your applause, we're trying to have a civilization here

By Mark Dorroh

I witnessed a figurative lynching the evening of March 28. I saw three men of integrity and good will vilified, slandered and finally run out of town by a self-righteous (is there any other kind?) mob.

Just to rub salt in their wounds, when the representatives of a consortium willing to risk 69,000,000 of their dollars on the future of our city left the Tuesday, March 28 meeting of Hopewell City Council, the standing-room-only crowd burst into what could only be interpreted as "goodbye and good riddance" applause.

I half expected a spontaneous chorus of "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" to break out, complete with four-part harmony, full orchestration and dancing in the aisles.

For perspective, let's analyze briefly what these guys, representatives of HDC LLD, Harper Associates and Prospect Homes, had done to deserve all that public opprobrium: They submitted a plan to resurrect a piece of land, a source of Hopewell scandal and misery for the past two decades, from its moribund state and get it back on the tax rolls.

The nerve! Tar-and-feathering would be too good for 'em!

Strange. The last time I checked, the majority faith in these United States taught "hate the sin, love the sinner."

Or, if you prefer the more secular version, ask yourself, "If we can't disagree without being disagreeable, what are we teaching our kids about conflict resolution?"

Not that there weren't legitimate concerns over the viability of their plan. There were. It was not what was said, but the way in which it was said that made me fear for the collective soul of my favorite Old Dominion city.

Full disclosure: I am far from personally unacquainted with the less admirable emotional reactions of suffering humanity. I've spoken, out of spite and out of turn, on more than one public occasion. My saving grace is my absolute, unwavering refusal to pile on.

The impulse to go with the mob is as natural as it is unacceptable. Big groups of angry people tend to feed off one another's outrage to the point that a sort of social critical mass may be achieved. Then we say and do things which would never occur to us as individuals.

But pile on we did, not once but twice in two weeks. And it's not just carpetbagging Richmond city slickers who caught the sharp edge of the Hopewell tongue over this particular issue. Elected officials and city staff have also been verbally roughed up by the hyper-alarmed Hopewell yeomanry.

Remember city council's first public comment period on the Exeter site agreement, held March 14? I sure do. Some in the crowd that night seemed not to understand the difference between a government meeting and a videotaping of "WWF Smackdown." These normally well mannered souls considered it acceptable to interrupt, catcall, disrupt proceedings with gratuitous applause and fire off imprecations at public servants.

The capper came after an very long public comment period during which everyone with something to say was afforded ample opportunity to say it. At the end of that time, council members are legally obligated to discuss the issue among themselves, which they did. And while council members did not interrupt the public, altogether too many members of the public failed to reciprocate.

At one point, City Attorney Edwin "Ted" Wilmot had to request silence of the muttering crowd. "I didn't want to offend anyone," Wilmot said a few days later, "but I have to hear what's said by members of council in order to perform my job duties."

It was a reasonable request. Nonetheless, several disgruntled individuals expressed their disapproval loudly, including one gentleman sitting behind Your Humble Correspondent who grumbled, loud enough to be heard across the room, "We're the citizens!"

Yes, we are, and we had an hour or more to say our piece. After that, it becomes somebody else's turn to speak. Our first grade teachers explained this concept many years ago. It would seem that too few of us committed to memory those words of wisdom.

Memo to Hopewell: if you hate what your public officials are doing, vote them out of office. But please, when they're doing their level best to discharge their sworn duties, don't express yourself in the same fashion you would at a cockfight.

As a prophylactic measure, I'm thinking of submitting to Delegate Ingram and Senator Quayle a proposed statute requiring citizen study of - and testing on - Robert's Rules of Order. Certification would be required of anyone who wanted to attend a public input session. I know it would never get through our General Assembly, but I believe it would be a blessing if it did.

If this all seems strange, I can only say the practice of taking turns when speaking at a public meeting is one which has been manifestly demonstrated to be in the best interests of all.

Or, as famously articulated a few years back by a character in a highly-rated TV sitcom, "We're trying to have a civilization here!"

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