There is a word that has been used in Tallahassee lately, civility, and it’s become something of a catch phrase for embattled establishment candidates like Mayor John Dailey. The Mayor uses it like a weapon to point at the extremism of his opponents, two of whom are members of his own city commission, members who are increasingly being stifled by his oddly authoritative nature. Interrupting them, ending meetings early, conducting intense whisper campaigns behind their backs, and yet Dailey proclaims “Civility in public service” as his chief principle. Each commission meeting begins with the Mayor commenting on the desired goal of handling every item in a civil manner, and hopefully showcase the ability of the board to function harmoniously.
It’s a nice notion, and an admirable goal. But, professed in Dailey’s mildly southern accent with its heavy dose of self-importance and the “Father knows best” persona that he projects, it merely comes off as shallow arrogance. Almost daring the youngest, most progressive, and many would say most genuine members of the board to just try and act up. In the face of numerous federal investigates at the city and county level, calls for reform that are increasingly growing louder and more unified, and an evidence trail of sweetheart deals for donors; Dailey still maintains a sense of supreme calm. Until he’s challenged.
Famously when Commissioner Jack Porter called for ethics reform, the Mayor cut her off, effectively silencing her. Just let that sink in for a moment dear reader. An elected member of the board was interrupted and cut off by the Mayor. Maybe it is time we stop asking John Dailey about his thoughts on civility and instead ask him why he thinks his role gives him the right to silence an elected representative of the people. Sadly this is not an isolated incident, and Dailey isn’t the only elected male official to publicly silence a female colleague in the past year.
When calls are made for more oversight and more public outreach, meetings get cut short, fellow commission members Curtis Richardson and Diane Williams-Cox, serving as backup, seeking a maintained status quo, even at the cost of their fragile reputations. Each commission meeting becoming a field day for skilled readers of body language, for regardless of their various virtues, a majority of the board members are not masterful at hiding contempt. This would be a tragic state of affairs if it wasn’t for one simple fact, those in the majority (Dailey, Williams-Cox, and Richardson) are not representative of the public and the public is noticing. Gone are the sleepy days of the 90s and 2000s, when commissioners were mostly left to their own devices as the citizenship largely ignored their very existence. The public is awaken, virtual meeting options have made them more focused on events, the election of two real honest to god citizen outsiders have given them a reason to fight. Anyone can see that in the new reality, the most competitive game in town are seats on the City commission.
The trio of establishment commissioners are not corrupt, they are not uncaring, and they aren’t wasteful opportunists. It’s actually even worse. They are tone-deaf, ignorant of the public good, divorced from the citizen’s needs, shallow to the poverty outside their doorsteps, always seeking political cover when they should be advocates, and professional office seekers. In short the model image of a typical Tallahassee city commissioner in 2002. They attend debates and become indignant when their records are questioned, they accept thousands of dollars in donations from developers and paddle the developers’ needs from their office.
Then you have the minority of two (Jeremy Matlow and Jack Porter), currently serving their first terms, both widely popular with the working and progressive classes of the area. When a poor neighborhood is being displaced they are always the only members you will see comforting the residences, advocating for
the interests of the silenced. If you attend a citizen’s advisory board that they are assigned to, they are usually in attendance. This writer served for three years on such a board with Curtis Richardson as the commission delegate, in that entire time, Richardson never once attended. You can usually tell when a new round of federal charges or investigations are about to begin, because they are usually the ones insisting on reform, being called alarmists, only to be handed another tangible example to prove their point.
In short, Tallahassee has become like every other governing body in the country, from the Supreme Court to the school board. Two groups, divided with two very different views of what it means to be a member of said board. Two advocates of social justice with deep roots in community involvement. Two members with deep roots in the communities circles of power and privilege, attached to so many different organizations that talk a good game and only deliver further exposure to board members. Plus, one former beloved county commissioner turned embattled mayor who has watched his esteem evaporate before his eyes.
So where do we go from here? Well, first we need to stop enabling such figures like Dailey, Richardson, and Williams- Cox. Stop expecting them to deliver better results just became they are nominally Democrats. They simply are no match to the times in which they are serving and we the citizens need to start/ continue to call these elected officials out. The main reason why they attempt to silence Porter and defeat Matlow, is because they are the ones who challenge them. It’s not always pleasant to be challenged in life, if you are an elected official, it can be hard for your ego to take. But, that’s part of the game. When you win and serve; it doesn’t make you a semi celebrity, you don’t have a brand to protect, and public service is when your troubles usually begin not end.
Its not enough to preach civility! Its not good enough to attend public events for photo ops and not seek to make a positive impact on the people who gave you this position. When you attend debates you should expect to defend your record and not insult members of the public who nervously ask you questions. Now I’m not telling progressives to be cold or unkind, I think civility has a place in our public conversation. But, I think it is also the cornerstone of democratic citizenship to call out hypocrisy. Being an elected democrat in a very democratic town, does not make you untouchable to criticism.
Make no mistake, citizens of Tallahassee live in a glorious community. We have such natural beauty, such promise, and so many places of historic importance. Our schools and parks are the stuff of legend, and our artistic community can rival the likes of any major metropolitan. Isn’t it time we have a board that reflects that? Isn’t it time we have a city commission that is as good, earnest, humble, and decent as its citizenship?