Shiny Happy People
Fractious PG Councilmembers learn to play nice.
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Pacific Grove City Council Members Dan Cort and Ron Schenk draw a large, unhappy face on butcher paper and top it off with a jagged shock of hair.
“The hair symbolizes how frazzled we are,” Schenk says.
Stepping back to appraise their work, they both nod their heads in approval. Yep, this is the collective face of the PG City Council, all right. No doubt about it.
Then they set about drawing a portrait of how they would like to see the council in five years. This time the face has a big smile and is holding something unidentifiably vague in its balloonish hand.
“It’s holding a little grace,” Schenk explains. “We’ll need some grace.”
“Not a little Grace,” Cort quips. “We don’t need people thinking it’s holding a little Grace. They might take that wrong. A little grace, not a little Grace.”
Schenk and Cort guffaw at this clever bit of semantics—the team building exercise seems to be working.
Surrounded by portraits of ancient rock art and buffeted by the soothing sounds of a Native American flute, the Pacific Grove City Council held their annual retreat at the Natural History museum last week in an effort to improve communication and relations within the fractious group of town leaders.
Since the November election, the seven-member council has seen a rift develop between the city officials.
One camp— Susan Goldbeck, Scott Miller and Susan Nilmeier—says their decisions, and votes, favor the greater public good and support more open government.
The other three—Mayor Jim Costello, John Stidham and Schenk—has shown its allegiance lies more with the local chamber of commerce.
Cort is the swing vote.
“We’re here to do a little team building,” says facilitator Eileen Goodwin, a mediation expert with Apex Strategies. “Because the three new council members expressed a desire to improve relations.”
She’s talking about Miller, Nilmeier and Cort, all of whom were sworn in last December.
Since then, bad blood between the two factions has threatened to derail the council’s progress at every turn.
David Dilworth, who heads the stridently no-growth environmental group Helping Our Peninsula’s Environment (HOPE), has been closely watching the council’s development since the swearing-in. He describes Costello, Schenk and Stidham as an “old boys’ network” and views new council members Miller, Nilmeier and maverick Goldbeck as a more progressive but equally tight-knit unit.
According to Dilworth, Cort has “one foot firmly planted on either side of the fence.”
To date, the PG Council’s voting record clearly evidences the split.
When it comes to making decisions that give the public more access to government—for example, requiring the city attorney to provide monthly bill summaries and allowing public comment on every agenda item—the council has been demonstrably split down the middle, with Cort siding with Miller, Nilmeier and Goldbeck about half of the time.
During the retreat’s visualization exercise, Nilmeier and Miller illustrate this division by carefully drawing two groups of stick figures with “the swing vote on skates rolling from one side to the other.” Alternately, their utopian five-year vision for the council depicts an unbroken chain with extra links to include both the public and the city staff.
Meanwhile, Goldbeck and Mayor Jim Costello work on their own vision of the council. It resembles a bumpy roller coaster with each of the council members represented as a car.
“Put square wheels on Susan [Goldbeck’s] car,” Costello says. “She’s always holding things up.”
“Put stone wheels on the Mayor’s car,” Goldbeck responds. “He’s caught in the past.”
And the future?
“A bus,” Costello says. “A magic bus we’re all on together.”
Goodwin appears pleased with the council’s progress as the elected officials return to their seats to begin brainstorming a list of citywide issues that they hope to prioritize and tackle in upcoming months and years.
By meeting’s end, the rift between the two sides isn’t healed.
But there appears to be a bit more understanding about the daunting challenges facing the council—balancing the budget, fixing the crumbling infrastructure and a finding a long-term water supply.
And maybe these divided town leaders have learned to hold a little Grace—err, grace.