Public officials don’t need to apologize when they ask tough questions, demand thorough answers and scrutinize the way the public’s business is being handled. Indeed, it is their obligation to do so.
But while it should be unnecessary to remind them of this, it is possible to be tough, thorough and vigilant without being verbally abusive.
Admittedly, one person’s idea of abuse can often be different from another’s.
But does Folly Beach’s recently ousted mayor pro tem Eddie Ellis really consider it all right to tell a former mayor, according to an affidavit, “I hope your cancer kills you soon so you can die and go to hell”?
Another council member said Mr. Ellis called him “almost every dirty word in the book” and said he hoped to see his colleague’s name the next day in the obituaries.
Mr. Ellis’ justification?
He has talked that way all along. Surely if that is the case he should have learned from his mistakes long ago.
Now airport director Sue Stevens says she is resigning after being the object of verbal abuse by at least one member of the Charleston County Aviation Authority.
The details haven’t been released, and Mrs. Stephens has hired a lawyer. But regardless of the disposition of her allegations, it would be nothing short of disgraceful if a member of the commission, representing the public, were unable to make his point without making an employee feel abused.
Commission Chairman Andy Savage has called a special meeting to discuss the situation, and he hopes the commission will agree to speak in open session rather than executive session. That’s a good idea. Members of the public should know how they are being represented.
And the person or persons accused of abusive behavior deserve a chance to describe things their way.
Three years ago, Charleston City Council considered adopting “rules of decorum” after complaints that then-council member Tim Mallard had been verbally abusive to city staff and disruptive at meetings.
Similarly, there was once an effort by the Charleston County School Board to make its most vocal member, John Graham Altman, zip his lip.
In each instance, the rules would have been unconstitutional, and, further, any policy that might stymie public dialogue would be a mistake.
Beyond the issue of civility, however, abusive language can be a distraction from subjects that need careful, thoughtful consideration.
Public officials should voice their concerns and expect adequate answers. In some cases, dealing with issues will make their colleagues and staff members uncomfortable.
But public officials should ask themselves before they get abusive: “Would you talk to your mother that way?”
Or for the unsentimental: “Would you talk that way to a 300-pound bouncer with a big stick?”
In any event, civil discourse is essential in conducting the public’s business, by those who are appointed and elected, as well as their employees.