Changing the Tone of City Government

Wendy Mattson Thomas was determined to apply what she learned in the American Leadership Forum to her work on the Placerville, California, city council. She says that when she was elected, her community felt estranged from the political process:

The consensus of a small, vocal, well-organized, and contentious minority was that projects were being pushed on the community that did not reflect the will of the people. Their rhetoric led to a growing mistrust of local government, and their position was to take us to court or the ballot on any issue they didn’t agree with.

A light switched on for me when we read Peter Block’s work about the possibilities of transforming community through powerful conversations. Meeting with my ALF class monthly allowed me to hone this skill. Consequently I developed a series of Neighborhood Chats and Community Coffees that our city adopted as an ongoing program. It transformed the way we spoke to each other.

At our first chat, a casually-dressed council warmly greeted incoming citizens at a table laden with flowers and refreshments. The dais was gone, and in its place were chairs placed in the round. There was no “middleman” in the room, no out-of-town consultant telling us “how to be when we grew up.” There was the council and city staff (who had volunteered their time to be there) in the midst of community members having a conversation.

After a heartfelt welcome, I named the elephant in the room—all the ways that we had been stuck in our pattern of relating to each other—and emphasized that no topic was off the table. Then I laid out rules of Dialogue for the evening’s discussion, designed to welcome diverse thought in our search for positive solutions. Then, not knowing what I was opening us up to, we began.

We asked what they liked about our community and what they didn’t. We talked about the challenges we face as a city and what ideas they had for improvement. And the most amazing thing happened: the community responded. The Dialogue was warm and engaging. Even in discussing the challenges with our city, the conversation was respectful and proactive. The citizens that yelled and railed on us week after week showed up in a different manner. Citizens walked away with a new view of their local government as being responsive, approachable, and open, and we walked away encouraged and invigorated with renewed determination to lead according to our shared values.

Our council meetings now have a different tone and tenor, and the citizens who felt obliged to verbally attack us have either stopped attending or have completely changed the way they show up at our meetings. I would not have believed such a rapid and complete transformation was possible in a community had I not experienced it. I also believe that we, the elected leadership, are holding ourselves differently, more accurately reflecting the community as a whole, all because we dare to better understand each other.

Wendy Mattson Thomas is a member of the Placerville City Council and lives in Placerville, California.

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