There were only two items on the agenda for the four-hour-long Provo City Council meeting about the city’s response to COVID-19, including whether a mask mandate should be passed.
Residents on both sides of the issue called in to voice their opinions to the council. Some callers called the council “insane” and “unbelievable” and accused the council of violating the U.S. Constitution.
“Our motives were questioned. Our intelligence was questioned. Our morality was questioned. And it just was rough,” said Council Chair George Handley.
After each callers’ allotted two minutes for speaking were up, a timer went off and Handley thanked the caller for their time, regardless of what they said. Handley said the mask mandate was the most controversial issue he has faced during his time on the Provo City Council.
But Handley said he had experience dealing with criticism before joining the city council. Handley, a BYU professor of interdisciplinary humanities since 1998, was elected to the city council in 2017.
“As an academic, ideas are always subject to debate,” he said. “There are professional conferences, presenting your research to others, sending in articles to journals, getting blind peer-reviewed feedback, getting evaluated by students every semester. So, you do learn how to deal with criticism.”
He added that even with that experience, dealing with criticism is not always easy. “There are some moments where it can be just utterly devastating,” he said.
Handley said he finds it helpful to remember that people are passionate about these issues because they care about their community, which helps him to find common ground with them as he also cares about the community.
And while he might initially disagree with people, he said there have been many times that his opinion on something has improved or been changed by the feedback he’s received.
“I have to recognize going in, I might be wrong, they might be right. They might be wrong, I might be right, or it might be a combination,” he said.
Councilwoman Shannon Ellsworth said the heated discussions surrounding the mask mandate were just one example of how Handley acts as a peacemaker on the council. Ellsworth said when residents spoke with him, he validated their concerns about the mask mandate and was very focused on helping people feel heard, as well as helping them to understand his point of view.
“He facilitates peace. He creates peace, and he genuinely wants to create win-win situations for people in our community,” she said.
She said one reason Handley is able to communicate and find compromises with residents so effectively is because of how articulate he is due to his background in academia and the humanities. Ellsworth said one strength of the council is that it is made up of people coming together from diverse professional backgrounds.
Handley said he was nervous when he first joined the council because he didn’t have experience in politics and because he was joining people who had years of experience in city government. But after he realized his writing and communicating skills could be of use, he felt more confident in what he could bring to the table.
Handley said there were some things his background didn’t prepare him for when joining the council, but academia prepared him to be comfortable admitting when he doesn’t understand something and asking for help. Handley said having so many colleagues in the Provo City government who were willing to help him also helped with that learning curve.
“I tell people all the time that the most beautiful thing about the way our government works is that there are experts available to us,” he said.
Councilman David Harding said Handley is very humble in saying when he has questions about an issue, and they’re usually questions that other council members have too.
Handley said one challenge of being in government on a city level in a city where he has lived for almost 23 years is that he personally knows people on both sides of some of the issues that come before the council.
“I know that no matter what I do, I’m going to offend someone I really care about or at least disappoint them,” he said. “I think once I got used to that I was like okay. This is not about pleasing other people. It’s about figuring out what the right thing to do is.”
Handley said he hasn’t thought about running for any other government offices because they would conflict more with his role at BYU, but also because he enjoys where he is right now and getting to work with the people of Provo.
“I’ve found that people in this community are very generous and they’re, by and large, very grateful people too,” he said.
And while he doesn’t always agree with everyone in Provo, he said he’s learned just how big of a difference citizens can make in local issues.
“I can point to many times when citizens have made a difference because they spoke up. I will say that speaking up with respect, a generosity of spirit, and thoughtfulness goes a long way,” Handley said.