SLO County politicians want to work together. They're starting with a code of civility

SLO County politicians sign pledge of civility to improve communication

San Luis Obispo County political leaders signed a code of civility Thursday, June 21, 2018, the first step toward embracing regionalism. The Board of Supervisors and mayors of all seven cities were part of a ceremony marking the agreement.
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San Luis Obispo County political leaders signed a code of civility Thursday, June 21, 2018, the first step toward embracing regionalism. The Board of Supervisors and mayors of all seven cities were part of a ceremony marking the agreement.

Political leaders from all seven San Luis Obispo County cities and the Board of Supervisors ceremoniously signed a code of civility Thursday afternoon, in what they say is the first step in working together toward a more regional approach to governing.

"We needed to find ways to work together in a manner that allows the best ideas to surface for better decisions for our region," said John Peschong, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

All the leaders took a code of civility to their councils for approval. On Thursday, the mayors and the chairman of the board publicly pledged to follow those guidelines at a news conference in front of city and county staff, members of the public, reporters and TV cameras.

"Civility is not for the faint of heart. Trust me, come to one of our council meetings," said Heidi Harmon, mayor of San Luis Obispo. "It's for the courageous. Its for those who are willing to do the thoughtful, deep and difficult work of democracy itself."

The code is basically a list of guidelines about how to respectfully communicate with each other and the public:

  • Listen first.
  • Respect different opinions.

  • Be courteous.

  • Disagree constructively.

  • Debate the policy not the person.

Those communication tools are meant to help the group enact the concept of regionalism.

Faced with shared problems like a lack of affordable housing, homelessness and the impending closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, leaders have looked to regionalism as a collaborative tool to help identify and implement shared solutions.

The idea of regionalism is local governments working across city boundaries in cooperation instead of competition for economic development, a concept that 32 local community leaders and politicians learned about when they traveled together to Denver and Boulder, Colorado, in August 2017 in a trip coordinated by the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.

While there, they met with Tom Clark, the "godfather of regionalism," who helped lead the metro Denver area to economic recovery after an oil and real estate bust in the 1980s.

The chamber said the delegation returned home with "an eagerness to fan into flame the newly ignited regionalism spark in our community. The group saw great promise in cultivating a shared, regional approach to shared, regional challenges for the benefit of our collective community prosperity."

What, exactly, regionalism will look like is unclear. Those involved say there's no clear steering committee, though the Colorado delegation has met a few times. Instead, Melissa James with the chamber said, "the discussion is unfolding in different pockets" of the county.

Derek Johnson, San Luis Obispo's city manager, said there's an opportunity for shared services, and offered the countywide animal shelter as an example. By working together, he said, the region will have a nicer, more cost-effective project.

Attracting small businesses and tourism are tasks for regionalism.

"Paso has great wine and manufacturing and warehouses. San Luis Obispo is adjacent to Poly and tech. Pismo and Grover have beaches," Johnson said. "We can do better trying to promote our strengths.

"Rising tides raise all boats."

First, they have to get along

"We all agreed that we were concerned about the instability we were seeing in our chambers and in the headlines," Peschong said. "People who have good ideas aren't sharing them, whether in public meetings, private conversations or online for fear of being insulted and ridiculed."

Part of the concern is likely related to the dynamic on the county Board of Supervisors, where members have been known to have it out with each other in shouting matches or via snide comments.

On Tuesday, the board joined a number of cities who had already signed the code of civility, but first they heard some public comment — both from those who supported the action, and those concerned the code might suppress free speech.

"I feel like this is the opposite," said Debbie Arnold, District 5 supervisor. "Not all of us like the confrontational style, and that might cause some of us to shrink back and not be part of the conversation."

Bruce Gibson, District 2 supervisor, sought to look beyond the language of communication tips and said civility is about more than being nice: It's about good governance.

"If an elected official disregards or even disdains professional opinion of staff or of technical experts ... or ... comes to a meeting profoundly unprepared and simply repeats talking points rather than engage in debate ... or ... bases their decisions on conspiracy theories rather than facts and evidence, that too is a failure of governance and something that is uncivil toward our constituents," Gibson said.

Adam Hill, District 3 supervisor, who has been heavily criticized at times for his abrasive behavior, said he agreed and was willing to sign on.

"It's no happy accident we are being asked if all five of us can get along better and do the people's business in a more thoughtful, more substantive, factual way. ... But I think we need to be less partisan and less rancorous," Hill said.

The group on Thursday called on each other, on the public and on the media to hold those who've made the pledge accountable.

"Call me out on it," Peschong said to The Tribune.