The benefit of being 65 and a government major with an interest in history is that I was able to answer the question my husband asked after sitting through a recent Waterville City Council meeting. As is usually the case from a guy who doesn’t say much, it was a good question. How did we get to the point where a resolution reaffirming the rules of civility by which the council is supposedly governed becomes a rant on the loss of First Amendment rights and comparisons to the Nazi SS?

History in my lifetime is one in which we have debated serious topics — civil rights, gay rights, reproductive rights, whether to go to war — and while all of those topics have brought about violent protests from the opposition, the debates in our governmental chambers have been conducted by our elected representatives with a sense of decorum and respect for the office an elected official holds. Personal attacks in governmental chambers have not been the norm.

Until, that is, the birth of the so-called tea party.

In 2009, minutes after President Barack Obama called for a more civil discourse on health-care reform in a joint session of Congress, right-wing Republican Joe Wilson shouted at him, “You lie.” That was the beginning of the trend that was to overtake the country in town meetings with elected representatives. Led by angry cries and uncivil behavior, magnified by the media, boorish behavior more appropriate for sports arenas found its way back into public meetings with local, state, and national representatives.

Backed by the billionaire Koch brothers for the past eight years, rallies, parades, and tirades at town halls aimed at dismantling government has led to a distrust of government that is as dangerous to the republic as any outside threat we have faced, with the possible exception of North Korea’s recent missile success or Trump’s pledge to work with the Russians on cybersecurity.

We’ve become accustomed here in Maine to a governor bullying and threatening those with whom he disagrees. Shockingly, the nation is now experiencing a president who, while sworn to preserve and protect us from danger, has focused on discrediting the media, harassing and threatening those who disagree with him on policy rather than on investigating foreign interference in our election. Compromise is a dirty word for leaders like these, but compromise is the grease that keeps the wheels of government moving. It’s no surprise that no matter where you are on the political spectrum, a great many people are angry.

I sure am. I’m angry that the leader of our state and the leader of our nation feel they have a right to bully those who don’t agree with them. I’m angry that they make up news and constantly work to discredit reporters whose job it is to hold them accountable. I’m angry they think that women, immigrants, people of color, people living with disabilities and addictions, transgender people, and people living in poverty are less worthy of respect than they are.

I’m angry that too many Maine people are less healthy, less financially secure than they were six years ago. I’m angry that Maine children are falling into deep poverty at eight times the rate of kids in the rest of the country. I’m angry that the governor and 60 Republicans split with their party and shut down the state, disregarding the vote of Maine people on a 3 percent surcharge to fund education.

And I’m angry that a small group of citizens spends every other Tuesday night attacking some councilors for doing their jobs.

Over the last couple of years, the tone of the Waterville council meetings has become more combative and less respectful. There’s no reason people can’t disagree on policy — but that’s not really what’s happening here.

It started with the recycling issue, when a small group decided they needed to record council meetings, despite the fact that they were already being taped for TV. Distrust and accusations that councilors and school officials are acting in their own self-interest have taken the place of actual discussion on the pros and cons of policies.

Recent accusations made against three councilors for attending a public meeting hosted by Friends of Waterville Schools is but one example. The Friends group has been engaged in policy discussions on the budget because proposed cuts would compromise the quality of the city’s schools. Since good schools are consistently rated the top priority for people with children looking to move to a new location, and we all want to attract new working families, my question is, “Why weren’t all councilors there?”

At a time when Waterville is on the cusp of reinvigorating its economy and attracting businesses, why are we having to spend one second on re-establishing an environment in which people feel safe coming to a council meeting? I don’t doubt that all of us want a strong, vibrant economy. We might disagree on ways to create that, but we can create one if council meetings are run with a respectful tone that encourages people to speak to the issues and not individual motivations. We owe Councilor Lauren Lessing a big round of applause for her thoughtful approach to showing us how that is done.

Karen Heck is a resident and former mayor of Waterville.


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