The Way Stamford Reps Communicate Their Views Affects My Outlook on the City and My Daily Life.

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This letter was submitted to the 40-member Stamford Board of Representatives (BOR) in response to a motion to censure a BOR member over speech deemed offensive. The last year in Stamford included a Charter Review Commission recommendation, a Democratic City Committee primary challenge, and increased engagement of the public on land use, school related and other issues. Repeatedly the public has been on the receiving end of mailers, social media posts, or statements within government meetings containing speculative and unflattering interpretations of people’s motives, character and actions. The unseen toll that subjecting the public to smears takes on the public and on public esteem for the political process merit attention.

Dear Members of the Board of Representatives:

I am writing on the subject of the present proposal to censure a member of the Stamford Board of Representatives.

In a national atmosphere that is toxic, dysfunctional and unproductive, I look to my local government’s legislative body to have a shared commitment to decorum and respect, and to employ guardrails for reminding members what that shared commitment entails. I thank the Board of Representatives for focusing on how members talk with and about each other and the BOR.

The way that BOR members communicate their views affects my outlook on the city and impacts my daily life. I cannot stress this enough. The impact is far beyond what you may imagine when you hit send or put out a public statement. The words and actions of BOR members have sometimes inspired to me to be a better person following your lead, but other words and actions have landed destructively and have been greatly distressing. It is not necessary for those words to be aimed at me personally to suffer as a result of disrespectful or demeaning comments. Sending disrespectful language out to the public can function like a drone strike, where unseen emotional damage is done and the pilot can pretend it didn’t happen and just go have dinner. There is an impact on willingness to serve, and an impact on citizens’ trust and faith in government. Whichever way you go, you are participating in shaping the future.

Where the BOR leads the city by example really is up to each and every member of this Board. I hope that inspiring the public to participate constructively will be the goal of each member and also represent a shared commitment by the entire body. Each member creates a ripple.  It is up to you to decide what that ripple will do. Each ripple can help to create a future Stamford BOR in which the public respects and turns to the BOR with trust, or it can encourage a downward slide in public respect for both the body and the process of working out solutions. Once the public’s estimation of government is stained and citizens are encouraged to disrespect it, that damage cannot be undone merely because it is now a convenient or critical moment to pivot.

I strenuously object to any BOR member communicating in such a way as to convey subtly or overtly that the Board of Reps or any of its individual members are to be disdained, demeaned, viewed with arrogance, or dismissed for having ideas or taking actions that do not match the member’s view. Speculation about other members’ or groups of members’ motives is inappropriate and serves as a means of poisoning the public’s regard for a member or members and the body. It is akin to the courtroom strategy of leading the witness. Speculation or speculative characterization contributes nothing to the body of fact. It takes an emotional toll simply to be a witness to disparaging characterizations of fellow members.

It is inappropriate to debate whether a person offended by speech is right or wrong in their personal experience of what was said. It is most pragmatic to assume that the listener, and not the speaker, is the final arbiter of the impact of words.  When a listener gives feedback that what was said was offensive, there really are only two responses: 1) I am sorry or 2) I am right (about how wrong you are). Only one of them tends to move a relationship forward, and I am generously assuming that is what is desired. (Those in doubt on the responses might want to ask their spouse.)

Making points is not the same as making progress. Shall we let the national landscape be our guide and, in the city of innovating since the 1600’s, give up on being the city that has found a better way to work together than the stasis in which we are enmired? Campaigning to win elections while poisoning the community’s willingness to engage in civil dialogue or serve the city is a short-term high, but I do not view it as a viable or recommended long-term strategy. Neither is impugning the reputation of those willing to serve such that they are harmed, just as the public is harmed and discouraged as it bears witness to that harm.

In closing, I am aware of the possibility that there are people who have already been convinced to disrespect the Board of Representatives and its leaders, and trust Carl Weinberg more than the BOR. Thus, for everyone but especially for those people, let me quote from Carl Weinberg’s first report on nextdoor.com in hopes that everyone will take it to heart:

“One more thing – I grew up as a wise-ass kid (some people say I still am!), and my mother drummed into me the importance of respectful behavior.  So let’s please stay away from calling someone a “moron” or “stupid” when we don’t like what they’ve said or done. It’s not respectful, and frankly it doesn’t advance the ball. Please criticize vigorously and comment frankly, but let’s stay away from the ad hominem attacks. “

There are few examples of constructive deliberation around us. The power to create a space where that is possible lies within each one of us. So does the power to destroy it.

Christine Reid
Stamford, CT