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By Brad Flory

One punishment of a career toiling for newspapers is being forced to spend mind-numbing periods of time watching local government meetings.

Influenced by self-pity or perhaps beer, I once attempted to determine how much of my lifetime was frittered away at meetings of boards, commissions, committees, councils, blue-ribbon panels, and task forces. To my shock, I conservatively estimate at least nine months of waking hours. Oh, the humanity!

Being a seasoned spectator of  boards in action is nothing to brag about, but it qualifies me to make an important observation to the Jackson City Council: Loudmouths and malcontents will never treat you with the respect you believe you deserve. Never.

Local government is a magnet  for complainers called “gadflies,” creatures defined by my dictionary as “ones habitually engaged in provocative criticism of existing institutions.”

Gadflies ridicule public servants, and some are remarkably devoted to that task. Most are not crazy, but they often seem obsessed. By nature, they are tenacious, blunt, and insulting. Some shout and wave their arms, and others attack in a quiet, businesslike manner.

Thirty years ago, a gadfly stood at a third-rate board meeting in Jackson, pointed at the person in charge, and yelled, “Prevaricator! Prevaricator!” The scene was so striking to a young newspaper reporter that I rushed to a dictionary and learned “prevaricator” means someone who evades the truth.

Years passed and I grew accustomed to complainers at government meetings. I came to view them as a natural and even important part of our democratic process.

People who serve on government bodies see things differently. They instinctively loathe gadflies. Jackson’s City Hall recently indulged this instinct by nurturing a delusion that loudmouths and malcontents can be forced to play nice.

For three months, City Council repeatedly started and stopped considering new rules to “minimize disruption” during public comment at its meetings. Council members appeared to permanently, and wisely, wash their hands of this proposal on  April 24.

The stupidest and most indefensible idea considered in this aborted war on disruption was a proposed ban on “personal attacks” in public comment.

Policing personal attacks is both foolish and impossible, because no one agrees what constitutes a personal attack when public officials are criticized. If any government board tries to draw that line, it appoints itself censor of  free speech. End of story.

  Local government leaders ought to remember that loudmouths and malcontents are so traditional in American democracy that they basically invented it. If not for them, we’d all be British subjects.

My advice to boards, commissions, and councils is this: Gadflies are here to stay. Get over it.

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