The $37,000 Council Project
It’s been all over the news for two weeks now. Ashland City Council Seeks Therapy! I’ve been working hard at getting the actual story out, but it’s been tough because the story that broke in the newspaper was cleverly written with a great headline.
But the story got it wrong in important areas, and the concerns I’m hearing are based on what’s wrong in the story. Meanwhile, the messageboards on the local papers have filled up with anonymous posts attacking me, the council, the mayor, and anyone who dares speak up in favor of this project.
Though it may attract more vicious attacks, lies, innuendoes and insults, I’ve decided not to remain silent, just this once, and to have my say in my blog regarding the $37,000 “therapy sessions” that have been so prominent in the news of late.
I want to address four issues. First, the nature and reasonability of the project. Second, the cost of the project. Third, the faulty assumptions made by those attacking the project. And fourth, my response to the very personal attacks on the character and reputation of myself and the councilors. And I want you, my reader, to answer a few questions along the way.
The Project: Don’t know why, but the papers don’t seem to get it. This project isn’t therapy. I’m not playing with words, either. We’re not going to work on the councilors’ childhood issues or self esteem or self actualization. We’re going to work on conflict resolution, communication skills, leadership and group process. Let me be clear. The process in which we are engaged involves training (5 sessions over 5 months) and coaching. There will be no discussion of the city’s issues. Everything we do will be focused on how the councilor’s interact and discuss the city’s issues. We are going to apply ourselves to the difficult task of resolving some long standing conflicts and developing a functional process that helps the council to be more effective and efficient in doing the city’s business. The end result will be a council that leads, that works together, that disagrees without being disagreeable.
Why are we doing it? The problems that have evolved in this council took a long time to develop, and the papers have devoted plenty of ink to it. It will, in spite of all the commentary to the contrary, require time and effort to resolve. Everyone is on board. The process has already begun. And for those watching, there is already positive change that you can see and hear. But in the case that what we do doesn’t work, there is a termination clause in the agreement. And if we get our intended results sooner, I will happily walk away and be glad to get my time back. I get paid better by NOT doing this work.
The Cost: When I was first approached about this project, I was hesitant to do it. Why? Two reasons. First, it requires that I turn away more lucrative business for the duration of the agreement. I am 58 years old, I have a responsibility to my family to earn the best living I can in the working years remaining to me. Once I decided to offer the requested proposal, I asked myself what the minimum amount of money was that would allow me to be able to afford to do a five month project in my own town. I gave the city the best price that I could. And in my opinion, it’s a bargain for the city. I take this commitment seriously and will give everything I have to give to get a successful outcome. Our success will more than pay for itself in benefits to the community. If you have a problem with me getting paid at less than market rate for the skills I bring to the table, get over it. This is the economic system we live in. I didn’t run for office. I know the worth of my work, and I deserve to be paid for my work. And yes, relative to the person making $9 an hour, it’s a lot of money. But these are choices we all make about what to do and what it’s worth. I’ll respect your right to choose these things. YOu ought to respect mine.
The Assumptions: Some assume that a recall would be cheaper and would solve the problem. But who will you recall? Who pays for a recall? How many recalls will there be? Where will it stop? What message will it send to potential candidates? Who will replace the council? How do you know they will do better? Who wants these thankless jobs that pay peanuts, require more than full time and invite personal attacks with every decision? Where will Ashland find competent and qualified replacements willing to make such sacrifices? In our elections, I don’t recall a big pool of candidates waiting in line for their chance. We elected these people. This was our choice. Maybe you didn’t get what you wanted, but we got what we wanted. That’s the way our system is designed to work. With all the time they spend in meetings and worrying about doing what’s right, is it really any wonder that their familiarity sometimes breeds contempt? You put them together in the room. City councils all across the country are dealing with this. Our councilors do the best they can with what they know. They are dealing with big issues, a big budget, in an often divided community. They get attacked by loud and angry citizens no matter what they do. It’s a thankless job for the most part. And yet they do it. Think!
The Personal Attacks: I’ve tried to serve my community quietly for the 26 years I have lived here. No press releases when I had great news. No advertising. I’ve done my share of service, often behind the scenes, but service nonetheless. I asked for nothing back. I have a great career. This is not a project that I need, and I didn’t ask for it. But when I was asked, my friends and clients told me I had a duty to apply my skills here where my wife and I live, where my daughter grew up, and where I care most about how things turn out. I listened to them, and changed my mind. Now I want to help. And I can help. This council needs help. Really, what’s your problem with that? That I want to be paid? I didn’t run for a thankless job serving you. The amount? It’s five months, lots of work, most of it invisible to you but work all the same. That I’m a naturopathic doctor? Attacks on my education demonstrate ignorance, not intelligence. I’m proud of my education (4 year med school program following three years of regular pre-med , built on the principles of naturopathic medicine, with an emphasis not on drugs and surgery, but on health restoration and maintenance.) My education taught me to have a systems view rather than a symptom view, and this has served me and my clients well. It informs everything I do.
So why the insults about my education, my books, my work? Who are these anonymous people who choose to make this so personal and petty, insulting and rude? How can our community hope to attract qualified and competent leaders when anyone who steps up may have to deal with this kind of bad behavior? These councilors did something extraordinary by taking on your business, they work hard for you, and they are far more deserving of respect than what has been shown to them, by the papers, by the anonymous message board posters, by the disgruntled few who often dominate the discussions in our town. For all their apparent shortcomings, these are the people who had the willingness to step up and serve, to sit in the hot seat, and do their best to do the right thing as they perceived it to be. They are bright, creative, and well intentioned. They could use some support and appreciation, and recognition for what they do right, at least a little more often.
Our community is a successful community, and with success comes growth, change, and big issues requiring the best process and skills to make the best decisions. And most of the outrage is based on misunderstanding. I have great respect for people willing to speak up when they think something is wrong, unless they do it under the cover of anonymity, where they don’t have to be held accountable for their own behavior.
My Advice For YOU: Be grateful to these councilors for their service. Recognize how hard they work for you and how little they receive in return. Appreciate that they have chosen (unanimously!) to change this situation for the better, not for themselves, but for you! And come to grips with the fact that I have no magic wand. I can’t walk in, give a couple of speeches or training programs, and expect a lasting result. That’s just dumb. This is a process. Building a functional process happens through time. This project will pay for itself in benefits to the community, and you should see progress in the near term. How about we give this a chance? How about a little support for positive change? Or not. But from where I’m sitting, the other options look pretty bleak.
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.