Dick Norton was scared.
The Green mayor had just left city hall after a long day and he knew the man walking up to him was angry. Earlier, there had been yelling over the telephone and some vague information about how this guy might have a gun.
And here he was about to get in the mayor’s face.
“I was fearful for my life. That was pretty frightening,” Norton said.
It all worked out OK. The man had his say. Norton explained his side, and they parted peacefully. The man even thanked the mayor for his time.
But it serves as an example of how incivility can be found anywhere. The public is known to play rough, sometimes with tragic consequences.
In 2008, a man went on a rampage at city hall in Kirkwood, Mo., killing six people and injuring two others. He was upset about a ballot issue dealing with annexation.
In 2010, a man was shot dead after opening fire at a Florida school board meeting.
Viewed by a detached reader, the complainers might appear crazy and the issues trivial. It can be barking dogs, garbage that’s not picked up, lawns that aren’t mowed, streets that aren’t plowed — but the importance and anger are very real to the upset citizens.
When the public thinks of incivility, they don’t think of themselves. An Ohio Civility Project poll by the Bliss Institute and Beacon Journal showed that people in the Akron area blame the media and elected officials most for the anger in the country.
Poll respondents placed little blame on the public, or themselves.
But when somebody gets upset about crime coming to their neighborhood or the guy next door starts burning leaves or the garbage truck doesn’t come on time, an otherwise model citizen can bring rage to city hall.
The enmity can be mutual.
The Consortium for Deliberative Democracy involving Syracuse and Yale Universities sought to find out what elected officials think about the public’s ability to grasp and civilly discuss complicated issues.
The officials said people understand the importance of public deliberations, but “lawmakers were quick to point out several challenges and risks of engaging constituents, including limited resources and complicated logistics, dealing with an ‘‘angry’’ and ‘‘hostile’’ public, and the difficulty within a partisan political environment of engaging constituents in a realistic discussion of legislative options.”
The Beacon Journal mentioned those findings to several local officials and found they also acknowledge the importance of public involvement, but those folks can be downright mean.
A step toward trouble
The Rev. Curtis Walker had a scare at a meeting of an Akron school, where he is a member.
A man was upset and getting loud.
“Doc [Superintendent Sylvester] Small had to get up and calm him down,” Walker said. “He actually took a step toward me.”
Many public officials have similar tales. They aren’t sure how close they were to actual violence. But they are taking precautions just to be safe.
Green’s Mayor Norton makes sure a deputy is present at city council meetings. The Akron schools administration building requires everyone to pass a security point to get to the board room. Other agencies require uniformed security of some sort at public meetings.
By many accounts, things are getting worse.
“I think people are more willing to try to take you on,” said Marco Sommerville, president of the Akron City Council. “More willing not to listen to reason; more willing not to respect your position.”
Sometimes, he knows it’s going to be a problem from the start.
“Years past, I don’t think people blamed us as much,” Sommerville said. “People, if they had a problem, they would tell you what it was and, you know, you would go about trying to solve it. But now people don’t even give you a chance to solve it. They are already angry when they call.”
His most severe threat came about five years ago, when a man threatened to hurt Sommerville and possibly commit suicide. Like most of the other officials contacted for this story, Sommerville was reluctant and a bit embarrassed to talk about the incident and offered scant details to avoid opening old wounds.
But they all insist the threats are real.
“It does happen on the local level and you get people who attack you,” he said. “In the past we didn’t have police at city council meetings and people could come and say what they want to say.”
He said causes are many.
“I think it’s just the pressures of life that feed off of this,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. Just don’t be a public official!”
And for some, that’s the answer: Don’t run for office.
As council president, Sommerville has known veteran council members who quit running rather than deal with the constant public incivility.
He said it’s something politicians must accept.
Like everyone contacted for this story, Sommerville said a key to calming people down is to simply listen.
Their term was to “let people vent.”
Mayor David Kline of Tallmadge said the issues vary from neighborhood parking to complaints that neighbors don’t maintain their houses.
“I’ve had people screaming, ‘That house, how can you let that go? Why aren’t you doing your job?’ ” he said. “And then I explain to them and they calm down and they get back to being civil again. Let them vent. Let them talk.”
Not all problems can be solved, and Kline said saying “no” is the hard part.
“I will die as a politician if I try to fix everyone’s problems,” Kline said. “You just can’t do that. It’s all communication. You got to be able to say ‘Yes, I can do this’ or ‘No, I can’t.’ ”
The anonymous, threatening telephone calls were what upset Tina Merlitti, a former Akron City Council member and now a community relations employee for Summit County and president of the local League of Women Voters.
“I did talk to the police about them and we kind of kept track of the times and dates,” she said. “It happens.”
She said she might run for public office again, despite the incivility.
“People in the public say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ and I’m like, ‘because most of the time you can help people and the whole idea.’ Public service is all I’ve ever done and I did it on purpose. This is my chosen profession. I didn’t do it by accident.”
But incivility has permanently changed the way the public experiences its government. In addition to increased security personnel, most city hall employees routinely drill standard procedures for how to react to threats in the building. Akron’s plan was activated recently when a man named Kaboom left his walking stick with his name on it at a city council meeting, prompting an evacuation.
Warner Mendenhall regrets it all, even though he also has had some threats.
The former Akron city council member and lawyer who is still involved in city issues has a collection of recorded threatening telephone calls.
But he doesn’t like having police at council meetings.
“I really don’t like the increased security, we used to not have metal detectors, certainly not in city council and even not in the courts,” he said. “You know I do think that even though it can get heated at times, I think we need to trust each other to behave in a civil manner.”
In his view, the security just adds to fear.
“I think we’ve overreacted,” he said. “Look, obviously, at different times there could be a … threat, I just don’t think we need to deal with it by screening everybody who comes into city hall … because I think that creates a fear as well. In a democratic society, one of the things we have a right to do is petition our government and that ought to be relatively barrier free.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.