02/01/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

Let's Talk: Democracy Depends on Civility

Since the beginning days of our democracy, the traditional town hall meeting has been the place where people sat in uncomfortable chairs raising hands, waiting their turn to speak their mind. It's crowdsourcing face to face, problem-solving together. Or, as Thomas Jefferson said, "the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government."

These days, self-government is under assault. Unfortunately, a minority faction is overtaking these cornerstone-of-democracy forums around the nation and suppressing any discussion at all.

In the San Francisco Bay Area the problem is particularly acute. Planning meetings, usually dull affairs, have been swarmed by sign-wielding people. As a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said in the Contra Costa Times, "Sometimes we're lucky to get five or six people to come to meetings. Now we're doing the best we can to accommodate the crowds."

Now, if everyone was engaging in healthy debate about the issues, we'd be delighted to have capacity attendance at planning meetings. Instead, the intent is disruption, not democracy. Participants have been shouting over facilitators, interrupting, and making it impossible to discuss what's at stake. And in the Bay Area, what's up for discussion is a regional plan for where the next generation of residents will live and work, and how we'll spend our transportation dollars -- and how in the heck we're going to stop heating up the planet.

A year into the process of gathering input from elected officials and residents and crunching job and population projections, regional leaders are hard at work at a draft plan for how the region should grow. Called Plan Bay Area, it's a blueprint for the next generation of growth, guiding where best to build homes, office spaces, and shops for current and future residents.

The main idea is to put new homes closer to jobs and transportation hubs so that fewer people will be forced to drive to work. It's a solution that makes sense and one that fits the needs of young professionals and seniors who want to live in a more urban setting.

This critique of participants' behavior isn't about being from one side of the political aisle or the other. The violence of a few in the Occupy Oakland movement is detrimental to democracy, too. Destruction and suppression are from the same playbook: destroying things doesn't advance an agenda. Shouting and interrupting doesn't allow debate.

"Everyone has a right to share his or her perspective," says Jeremy Madsen, Greenbelt Alliance Executive Director. "Let's have the dialogue about what we should spend transportation funding on, and where houses should be built. Just don't prevent other people from having their say." Madsen will be talking this weekend at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Los Angeles about how to be respectful of critics and allow everyone to participate.

At your next town hall meeting, bring your opinions. But if your intent is to shut down dialogue, you're not helping your community become a better place. Don't disrupt the process; have the conversation instead. It's democracy in action, folks.