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Council Corner: Getting to yes or no — or maybe

For Regina Ayers, who likes knowing more about what goes on in the City Council:

I really listen when citizens speak during public input. I listen because I’m interested, and because it’s a very direct way I can make local government better. But what do I think about what you say? And how do I react? Well, it depends …

First, I try to discern whether you understand the issue. Often speakers don’t really grasp their issue and sometimes even argue against their own interests. The experience is surreal, but it’s really our fault if the public doesn’t fully understand an issue. Usually we try to correct the misunderstandings so a rational conversation can take place, but that can take a while, especially if we don’t understand the issue that well ourselves. (The life of a public official is full of paradoxes.)

I think the expectation — of not only wanting to appear competent but also to be competent — is a natural part of being an elected official. The artful thing is to own your own limitations in a way that engages people and inspires confidence.

I hope all of us on the council and supporting the council aspire to create an accurate factual framework for every issue ahead of time, so the public can be prepared. Unfortunately so many issues and decisions come before us that we regularly fail to do so. Also it takes time, thoughtfulness, putting yourself in the citizen’s shoes, going out and inspecting the issue in the field, good writing skills and plenty of free time.

But let’s get back to my personal experience of public input. I have to say Ashland residents are extraordinarily articulate about subjects that are important to them. The written and spoken input on the Airbnb issue for our March 17 meeting was phenomenal. And this brings us to rhetoric versus authentic expression.

For me it comes down to the difference between communicating with the intent to persuade and communicating with the intent to discover reality.

When you, the public, try to influence us, the council, by piling up every conceivable argument in favor of your position and, often, debunking, devaluing and deconstructing the opposing position, it is very hard to incorporate what you say into a good decision. Help us understand the real reason(s) for your position and we will have a better chance of creating a decision that will address those concerns in a fair way.

Council decisions are exercises in equity, but also, I hope, in creativity. And creativity often has to do with process: taking a preliminary step or doing a pilot project. It also has to do with communication, and especially listening and probing to really find out what another person is experiencing. And effective listening involves expressing back to the other person enough of his or her position that demonstrates you’ve got it right.

Sometimes, when you all sit down side by side in the council chambers and, two by two, at the speaker’s table, you actually listen to each other. It’s from the side, not face to face. And maybe that’s a good idea, because we don’t get to counter each other’s statements and argue things out. Then the council soaks up the whole body of input, plus what the councilors read ahead of time, and starts picking its way through the issue toward a conclusion — yes or no, or maybe (in the words of Oregon poet William Stafford) — and eventually, with luck, gets so immersed that the council takes it on as a group. You can sometimes see them shift into this mode: they pause and listen to each other, and reflect, and try out possibilities to search for a bridge across differences.

This is when I think the council is truly deliberating, and it makes me smile inside. It may not always make you smile, but I think citizens who can communicate as well as the citizens of this fair city will appreciate the value of genuine deliberation and eventually recognize that it is truly in the public interest.

John Stromberg is mayor of Ashland.