- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Pat Guerriero wasn't prepared for what he heard on the campaign trail three years ago.

The mayoral candidate in Melrose, Mass., a 30,000-person middle-class town seven miles north of Boston, expected to hear the usual voters' litany of lower taxes, public safety and education reform. He did, but he says he heard another complaint, too.

"Everyone would also say, 'I feel like I'm living in a cutthroat society,' " Mr. Guerriero says. "It seemed like a common thread. People were starting to feel the evidence of things we used to see on TV or think of in just urban cities and were starting to creep into their neighborhoods."

So in 1997, when Mr. Guerriero was elected mayor, one of his first official acts was to form a "Responding With Respect" committee.

"I think the world we live in is so fast-paced that there are a whole lot of folks in cities and towns across the country putting a new value on trying to regain basic sanity and civility and composure," Mr. Guerriero says.

"Maybe those basic values are missing from everyday life. I told people here we might have great schools, but if we're swearing at refs in front of the children, if we're running our neighbors down on the streets and attacking people's integrity in public meetings, we're going to lose, even though we might have a ton of other success stories," he says.

Mr. Guerriero decided to lead by example, instituting changes at City Hall from Day One. He put in a welcome desk with a greeter and also had a new phone system installed to assure that when people called City Hall, they were greeted by a person instead of a machine. Employees also gave their names when they answered so callers wouldn't feel they were talking to a "faceless bureaucrat," Mr. Guerriero says.

With the help of the city's clergy, he instituted a "pulpit exchange" program in which churches and synagogues invited someone of a different faith or denomination to lead or participate in the service one week.

Mr. Guerriero himself instituted an open-door policy in his office and made more trips to stores and coffee shops to talk with residents.

Melrose's police officers ditched their leather jackets in favor of friendlier-looking Gore-Tex all-weather jackets. They painted their cruisers a softer white to cover the harsher dark colors. Officers started carrying business cards with their names. Like City Hall, the department added a new phone system to enable callers to speak directly with an officer when they called.

Has it all worked? Several city leaders say it has, although it's hard to quantify how much.

"I think it's made our job easier," says Melrose Police Chief Richard Smith. "Citizen complaints have gone down even though police-initiated contact has gone up. Usually it's the other way around. There were some cynics in the building when we first started all this, but things are starting to change. It's easy for police officers to have an us-vs.-them mentality, but that's going away. People like to be treated with respect, and if they go home at the end of the day and they were treated with respect, you can feel good about it."

Melrose High School Principal Daniel Burke has been at the 1,000-student school for a little more than a year and wasn't around when Mr. Guerriero's initiative started. He says, though, that Melrose High is an "unusual" school, and he can't help thinking the two are related.

"If you give kids a reason here why something has to be done a certain way, you don't have to yell and scream," he says. "We have two kids in wheelchairs and one with Down syndrome. There's zero teasing. I went on a diet with a guy in charge of special education, and a number of the kids were coming up and saying we were doing a good job. That's unheard of in other schools.

"We had a couple of jokers in the cafeteria that started a food fight one day, and a girl got hit with an apple. I told them that's uncalled for and if it happens again, I'll have to assign you all seats. I had a dozen kids come up and ask how the girl was, and a couple didn't even know who she was."

Mr. Guerriero says he has had mayors of other cities and towns ask how to start a similar strategy in their areas. Would it work in a huge cosmopolitan area such as Washington? Mr. Guerriero, a 1990 graduate of Catholic University, chuckles.

"Why not?" he asks. "I worked in Washington for four or five years, so I know how cynical people can be there. All I know is we still have the same imperfect community and still have our battles and mess-ups, but overall I think the community is thinking of stopping for a second in the midst of this fast-paced technological world we live in and thinking of how we treat people around us.

"If nothing happens but a small child gets up on a bus and gives the seat to my grandmother, the program's been successful," Mr. Guerriero says. "It costs nothing, and my grandmother gets a seat on the bus."

Stephen L. Carter, a Yale Law School professor and author of "Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy," says other communities have tried a variety of Melrose-type experiments with civility, and while the idea sounds good in the abstract, it's hard to maintain over the long run.

"The trouble is that modeling is itself an act of self-sacrifice," Mr. Carter says. "What happens is, people begin to defect. Some people say, 'Well, actually, there's this other thing I need to do that's more important.' Somebody else says, 'Well then, why should I stick to this?'

"That's why these things tend to crumble a little bit. Not because people are bad or because they don't want to do the right thing. It's because people are complicated and they're all serving a lot of masters at the same time, and these issues like civility usually are not very high on most people's lists."

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