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Decatur City Council members have received personal attacks from the media and public for years - A more open and transparent city government may be the solution to reducing them

Recently, city council members have been receiving a substantial number of personal attacks for their views and votes on city issues. These attacks have come from other council members, from city employees, from newspaper columnists, radio hosts, and from the general public both at council meetings and on social media. By all accounts, the number of personal attacks directed toward city council members has been on the rise, but Decatur City Council members have been receiving personal attacks for years. There is no place for personal attacks in civil discourse.

SOME MEDIA OUTLETS IN DECATUR HAVE USED THEIR PLATFORMS AS A WAY TO PERSONALLY ATTACK ELECTED OFFICIALS FOR MANY YEARS – Without a doubt, social media has made it easier for more individuals to engage in personal attacks and use of social media allows one to reach a very large audience in a very short amount of time. Media venues such as radio and newspaper have also been used for personal attacks on city council members. Personal attacks by one radio host in Decatur are common and have been occurring for a long time. Given how long these attacks have taken place, it appears to be condoned by the citizens who listen and contributors which include financial companies, educational institutions, and charitable organizations (many of which have strong ties with the city of Decatur). 

In response to the increased frequency of personal attacks, some of the same entities who have engaged in the attacks have called for them to end. I hope these entities realize they are some of the perpetrators and heed their own calls for civil discourse. When media outlets engage in name calling and give legitimacy to false claims about council members, it sets a poor example for the public and it reduces one’s overall impression of Decatur. 

WHILE THE TONE OF PERSONAL ATTACKS VARY, THE IMPACT IS THE SAME – Personal attacks often have a different language register. Some attacks involve name-calling, some involve attempts to discredit a council member’s credentials, and others involve legitimizing false rumors. Name calling seems to be more common in social media and at council meetings. Legitimization of false claims and discrediting of one’s credentials seems to be more commonplace in traditional media. Regardless of the language register, the intent is the same – to discredit the person who is the subject of the attack. Radio hosts that engage in name-calling and discredit credentials, newspapers that legitimize false claims, and citizens that use even coarser methods, all are attempting to discredit the person rather than the issue being advanced. 

PERSONAL ATTACKS MAKE IT MORE DIFFICULT TO ADVANCE THE POLICY THAT ATTACKERS ARE ADVOCATING FOR – Attacking council members or private individuals is counterproductive and may weaken the cause for which one is advocating. More productive will be the refutation of arguments of those one disagrees with. Over the course of a 4-year term, a city council member may cast over 1,000 votes. I am confident that there will be disagreements with individual council members over many of those votes. This disagreement should be one over content of the issue as opposed to a personal attack. The city of Decatur faces many significant challenges, and it will require many people working together to help solve our problems. Civil discourse is critical to achieving this effort.

PERSONAL ATTACKS INTENSIFIED WHEN THE CITY OF DECATUR PROPOSED TO RESTRICT CITIZEN COMMENT AND VOTED TO PROHIBIT CANNABIS-RELATED BUSINESSES – In my view, the increased frequency of personal attacks was precipitated when the city proposed reducing the opportunity of the public to comment, and was followed soon after by the votes to prohibit a cannabis dispensary and other cannabis-related businesses. 

As a generalization, citizens have three avenues to express their views about city government: vote, public comment, and protest. Thus, it was a surprise when the city proposed (without knowledge of the council) that public comment be restricted to the beginning of the meeting eliminating the ability to comment on each agenda item. This was followed by the city voting to prohibit cannabis-related businesses when by most measures there is a greater number of residents that want cannabis-related businesses than want to prohibit them. As one example, at the aforementioned meeting, a resident brought a petition with over 1,000 signatories in support of a cannabis dispensary. A few minutes later, the city council voted to prohibit them. 

There is reason for citizens to be concerned by the city’s attempts to limit participation in government as it reduces one of the means by which citizens can express their views, and can lead to a government that is less accessible and transparent to the people it serves. Given that Decatur faces significant challenges, we need contributions from as many individuals as possible rather than the city attempting to reduce access. 

THE BEST PART OF DECATUR IS THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE HERE – In the fifteen years that I have lived in city, I have come to know Decatur citizens as kind, caring, and compassionate. For this reason, I have always been surprised at the frequency of personal attacks on elected leaders that take place in Decatur, particularly from some media outlets. I hope that 2020 is the year that the city of Decatur becomes a model for civil discourse, embraces a more open and transparent government, and sees the end to the personal attacks of public officials that has taken place in our city for years.

Horn for Decatur
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