Hard Candy: Community

I just got off the phone with of the first friends I made in Gulfport. For him, life is about community. He’s so exuberant about the idea that it made think about the Gulfport community. When I first moved to Gulfport, I wasn’t looking for community, but it was there all the same, and it impressed me.
Now, though, I wonder if Gulfport may be losing its sense of community, and it makes me sad. For those of you who don’t follow local politics, let me back up.
Last week Margarete Tober appealed to council. This is not news; she attends almost every council meeting and clearly puts a lot of effort into understanding the issues. More so, it seems, than certain council members at certain times. At Tuesday night’s meeting, she asked council to please “bring to a close the matter of the city attorney position.” This, too, is not news: anyone paying attention and aware of how volatile council meetings can get probably wants an attorney permanently ensconced on the dais, if for no other reason than to protect their property taxes from skyrocketing due to lawsuits.
No residents are suing Gulfport. Yet. But it could happen any time, as self-proclaimed “common citizen” Al Davis intimated at Tuesday’s meeting. Actually, I think he suggested that his attorney might sue individual council members Michele King and Sam Henderson for slander. After having his address to council, Mr. Davis and his wife left the meeting.
Which comes back to community. Because something has gone horribly wrong when members of the community have so much anger that they threaten lawsuits, or when council members won’t respond to those people because they are so leery of an attack. When council meetings get so charged with hate, it’s hard to remember that Gulfport fancies itself a “waterfront Mayberry” with “small town charm” or any number of positive things.
I’m not saying Michele King and Sam Henderson are right and I’m not saying that Al Davis wrong. Ms. King hasn’t displayed generosity of spirit with the Davis’, but I can quote Mr. Davis’ allegations about her just as quickly. That’s my point: if someone were to judge this city by the way people behave at council meetings lately, they’d dismiss the idea of a community in this town as crap and move to Sanibel instead. If we used council meetings as a metric, our idea of a community is a place where nobody trusts anybody or listens to one another; where people always have their guard up.
Is that how you want the world to see your community?
I moved to Gulfport by chance; I wanted to live by the water and had a large dog. I found an apartment two blocks from the bay that allowed large dogs, and it happened to be in Gulfport. Total coincidence.
One Thursday my downstairs neighbor brought me a copy of The Gabber, a paper I had, in my former life, bought advertising in but never actually read. I sneered at weekly community papers and the idea of community. I didn’t need community. I needed food on the table and a way to pay the power bill.
And still The Gabber sat around for a week, as I think you all know, it tends to do, and I started flipping through it. I saw a notice that the Gulfport Community Players needed help. I volunteered. And I met Frank, Ron, Jovanna, Judy, Miki, Carol, and a whole host of other people who welcomed me into their community without question.
Seven years later, that’s still how I see Gulfport: a welcome without question. It’s a place where anyone can come for a safe haven or new beginning. It’s a town where people disagree but, when it matters most, people look out for each other.
But not at council. It seems that elected officials are so bogged down by conflict that they don’t govern anymore. Important city business –like hiring an attorney—gets ignored. Certain segments of the populace feel like it’s their job to attack council, and while I believe that council must withstand more scrutiny than those they serve, it saddens me to see such hateful undercurrents in a city prides itself on community.
I won’t deny that I empathize with city staff and elected officials, but I also empathize with folks like Ms. Tober, who speak intelligently without denigration or accusation and often get ignored anyway.
I cannot, however, muster any empathy for those who tear at this city with threats and bullying, no matter what side of the dais they sit or stand. When they treat council meetings like battles, they slaughter the foundations of this community. I’m not saying people shouldn’t speak out. The right to participative government is one of America’s capstones. But there’s no need for this level of discord.
So I beg both sides, before it gets any worse, before the city hires an attorney because it must and not because it should, take the first step. Be the bigger person. I’m not asking you to give up your ideals. I do ask this: who of you will be first to call the other and say, “I don’t want to fight anymore. I disagree with you, but I respect your position in this city. How can we work together? How can we end this war?”
I know both sides feel attacked and both sides believe they’re right. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t matter; your community is watching you. Community matters. Gulfport matters. Your town is not against you and you are not against it, yet look at the legacy you’re leaving- one of bitter hatred and threats.
How great for Gulfport if instead you left a legacy of understanding. Oh, I’m not suggesting we all sit in a circle and hold hands. I’m suggesting that your love for this community will allow you to do the hardest thing of all: set down your anger and righteousness and forge ahead… together.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.