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To address the issue of incivility during public meetings and forums in Collier County, more than 600 people attended Greater Naples Leadership’s Reduce the Rancor forum Feb. 7.

The forum featured six panelists, former congressmen Dick Gephardt and Francis Rooney, former Collier commissioner Andy Solis, retired newspaper publisher Nick Penniman, author Tim Love and Rev. Sharon Harris-Ewing. They discussed their views on why Collier County is facing an incivility crisis and proper handling of discourse with those with differing political views.

The idea of a forum was provided to the Greater Naples Leadership by Solis more than a year ago when a lack of civil discourse became more prominent in local board meetings. Examples included Rabbi Adam Miller of Naples’ Temple Shalom facing antisemitic remarks while leaving a school board meeting in 2023 and when demonstrators gathered at a City Council meeting in 2022 in opposition of Naples Pride Fest, holding signs saying “We Will Not Accept” and suggesting the festival led to grooming of children and gender confusion.

In May 2023, Greater Naples Leadership along with other supporters, including League of Women Voters, worked together to create an impactful way to get the message across that hateful speech needs to stop.

“During the beginning, many people on our committee were even thinking is this really going to be worth anything? They were skeptical, but by the end, we were all convinced of it,” said Joanne Huskey, a member of the forum’s planning committee. “And it’s just grown and grown in terms of people’s desire in this community to create a more civil environment in an urgent way.”

The panel covered important life lessons, including remembering The Golden Rule, reminding those to treat others the way they’d like to be treated.

The impact of traditional and social media was a hot topic of discussion as panelists blamed how easy it is to communicate online and the ability to hide behind a keyboard for the increase of distrust among each other.

Solis said the quickness of communication is a main cause of the social divide.

“Civility isn’t necessarily one of the main guideposts for how we communicate anymore with email, texting, social media. Although it seems connected it’s really from an interpersonal perspective, I think very disconnected,” Solis said. “Civility just isn’t something that’s at the forefront in everyone’s mind anymore, because communication happens so fast.”

Commissioner Burt Saunders, who attended the forum, said one of the reasons he ran for a seat seven years ago was because the board was dysfunctional.

“[The board] had a group of three and a group of two, and they hated each other. There were frequent times where they would argue and yell at each other, the public was being ignored. I decided to run because that was not a way to conduct business,” Saunders said. “We’ve not had that problem on the commission since I’ve been there, and one of the reasons is that we won’t stand for it.”

Saunders said name calling is an ineffective way to communicate, and incivility can be minimized if there are elected officials who are proponents of active listening and being respectful of everyone’s opinions.

“I think the biggest point that someone made was elect representatives who won’t tolerate uncivil actions, elect people who will listen and try to keep things calm and professional. If you elect flame throwers, that’s what you’re going to get,” Saunders said. “The biggest lesson here is you’ve got to elect people who are really interested in having a civil discourse as opposed to screaming loudest to try to get their view across.”

Diane Preston Moore, president of the League of Women Voters of Collier County, said typically the league does not fund other organizations’ events but saw it as too important of a message to not support.

“We thought it was really important to get the issue out in the public, to have this be a first step or steppingstone for the public to really start to understand what the problem is, what the potential solutions are, how pervasive the problem is,” Moore said.

Moore said learning to listen properly was one of the biggest takeaways from the event.

“I think that if we could all just listen a little more closely, we might actually figure out our commonalities instead of sticking in our corners and figuring out what divides us,” Moore said.

The large turnout demonstrated how much of a concern this is for county residents.

“I’m glad that it did strike a chord with the community because my experience on the county commission was that, especially after the pandemic, it’s just an issue that keeps getting worse. It doesn’t make the community better,” Solis said. “I can only speak to the local kind of decision makers, [incivility] doesn’t make that process easier. I don’t think incivility makes for better decision making.”

Solis said if incivility arises during public meetings, witnesses should not applaud the behavior and continue to focus on their commitment to their own civility.

“It’s not about politics. Just because I’m going to discuss political issues or any issues with somebody that I disagree with, doesn’t mean I have to agree with them. And it doesn’t mean that I have to change their mind either,” Solis said. “But it certainly keeps the discussion to the issues that you’re trying to understand as opposed to taking it to the realm of a personal affront.”

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