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June 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Our Town: Toning down the rhetoric Our Town: Toning down the rhetoric (June 23, 2004)

by Don Kazak

The group trying to reduce the decibels and increase understanding during community disputes has found 13 ways to do so.

Will that be enough? Sometimes I think we need that nun from "The Blues Brothers" movie who whapped people with a big ruler, but that's apparently not an option.

Palo Altans for Governmental Effectiveness (PAGE) had its third of three planned town hall meetings early this month and came up with 13 principles to help guide future debate.

PAGE was formed in early 2003 out of alarm over how the civic debate in town had reached new lows. Comprised of about 150 people, including some former City Council and school board members, the group is seeking ways to encourage people to bring more civility to civic behavior.

A more important theory lurks in that effort, too: By creating a higher level of trust and respect during community debates, better solutions may be found to tough problems.

The 13 principals are worth noting:

* Be open and listen to other points of view.

* Define the problem.

* Be willing to compromise.

* Better to get it right than be right.

* Build bridges toward common interests.

* Be sure all stakeholders are represented.

* Get complete facts and clarify assumptions.

* Build relationships in the process of solving the problem.

* Focus on the issue, not the person.

* Don't assume the obvious solution is the right solution.

* Solutions don't have to be perfect; they are evolutionary and flexible.

* Once a solution is reached, support it and move on.

* Focus on the Common Good.

What happens next? That's what PAGE is pondering.

The group clearly touched a chord among many people by looking to find a more thoughtful, less bruising way to get through community disputes.

Mayor Bern Beecham was thinking along the same lines during his state-of-the-city speech in March when he exhorted his council colleagues to get out into the community more to try to solve problems before sides get polarized.

While PAGE has banked goodwill and growing trust among many of the people who attended the three sessions, talking about ending discord is easier in the abstract than when there is a real problem that drives people into opposing camps.

PAGE is trying to find a road-map, as it were, to do that.

One idea is to use the upcoming city consideration of building a $12 million recycling center in the baylands after the dump closes in 2011. First discussion about that is scheduled for late summer, and the topic has the possibility of a fight-to-the-death issue among its opponents because it would be on park-dedicated land.

Another idea is for PAGE to take on an educational role in the 2005 City Council and school board elections, using its 13 principles to let candidates know "Here's how you are expected to behave," as former Mayor Larry Klein, a PAGE co-founder and board member, put it.

"They're taking a very careful, considered approach to working together," Beecham said of PAGE.

PAGE has defined the community's overall problem this way: "We have lost our ability to talk to each other in a trusting and respectful way."

"People feel that nails it pretty well," said PAGE board member John Northway.

The effort has been laudable, but doubters remain.

"They are good guidelines, but do we need people to tell us this?" asked Judith Wasserman of the city's Architectural Review Board. "Apparently so. The need is desperate."

"It's a positive, developing process," said Pat Burt of the Planning and Transportation Commission. "It's not just the council but the community that needs to buy into these guidelines."

A smattering of neighborhood leaders also attended the meetings. Some are suspicious of PAGE's motives and think PAGE is too closely tied to developers. That lack of trust comes from people believing they are not working for the same things, and that there are different agendas -- some of them hidden -- at play.

PAGE must first convince skeptics it is working for the betterment of the community, not fronting for special interests. Maybe then we can talk about civility.

And, as a fallback, where is that nun with the ruler? Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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