Background: At the Selectboard meeting on 1/11/2021, member Andy Watts was asked to hold his comments on the agenda item “Consider approval of merger vote information materials”; it was ‘not the time’ to discuss the document and that comments should instead be emailed. A week later (1/19/2021), the same item was on the agenda. Selectboard member Watts again wished to discuss the document and expressed a desire to improve the document that will ultimately be sent to all voters. This time, he was told it was “too late” to make changes other than spelling and grammar corrections. Mr. Watts also raised the issue that some of the language was biased, a comment that was was swiftly dismissed as being completely untrue.
My thoughts: Public meetings should be a place to be heard, to learn, and to make a difference – not a place where you are made to feel you should bite your tongue. When we stifle the input of anyone in our representative democracy, we do a disservice to all members of our community. When we deny the validity of views other than our own, we suffocate those who wish to learn from those diverse views. When we don’t provide the space to have open, honest, and meaningful conversations, it perpetuates the feeling expressed by many in our community that decisions are being made without an effort to fully engage the public as part of the open meeting process.
Good leaders don’t simply deny the existence of bias – they recognize that we ALL have bias (both implicit and explicit). Good leaders listen, recognize perceived bias, and discuss those concerns directly. Good leaders don’t avoid having difficult conversations – they see these conversations as an opportunity to expand their own thinking, to listen and learn about other views, and to potentially improve themselves. Good leaders create the space needed for others to collaborate for the mutual benefit of the entire community.
Instead of stifling voices, we should recognize our own biases while appreciating diverse viewpoints – regardless of whether we agree. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” -Evelyn Beatrice Hall (pseud. S. G. Tallentyre)