In 2005, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District realized it had a problem. A public opinion poll showed that less than half of the district’s constituents had a favorable opinion of the TTAD, and 22 percent were dissatisfied with the job the district was doing. The main reasons cited by residents were too much noise and growth.

‘We began recognizing that there was some discontent about some of the ways we were doing business,’ said TTAD Interim General Manager Mike Scott.

So what did the district do? First, they listened. Then they reached out to the public. And lastly, they tried to address the issues. This desire to react positively to community feedback led directly to the district’s decision to give $3 million toward the purchase of Waddle Ranch in 2007 and later agree to become the landowner of the conservation easement. The end result? Four years later, the TTAD’s approval ratings jumped to 54 percent and, most significantly, its disapproval ratings dropped by a staggering 19 percent.

‘This altered the way we reach out and listen to people,’ Scott said. ‘We embraced their concerns, and structured our actions and decisions to deal with the concerns in a more positive manner.’

The district didn’t realize it at the time, but it had unwittingly followed the guidelines of a civility campaign started in Duluth, Minn. in 2003. This month, the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation (TTCF) kicked off the same campaign – the Speak Your Peace Civility Project – in our area. The project’s goal is to improve public discourse by urging citizens and community leaders to communicate, and disagree, in a more respectful manner. Organizers hope that by getting both local government agencies and private citizens to sign on to the project, a culture of healthy debate will flourish and lead to a stronger community.

Divided in Duluth
The Speak Your Peace campaign was created by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation in response to the tone of public debate, which had grown increasingly vitriolic after the community became severely divided over economic development issues.

‘Some people were saying that they didn’t want to go into politics because the city council meetings had turned into Comedy Central,’ said Beth Probst, communications officer for the Duluth Foundation. ‘People were really disrespectful and over the top. There were a lot of personal attacks. It became a mockery.’

The Foundation looked at what it could do to improve the level of public discourse. Using the book ‘Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct’ by P.M. Forni, the organization came up with nine tools of civility: 1) Pay attention; 2) Listen; 3) Be inclusive; 4) Don’t gossip; 5) Show respect; 6) Be agreeable; 7) Apologize; 8) Give constructive criticism; and 9) Take responsibility. In short, be nice.

‘It’s really basic reminders of what your momma taught you when you were a kid about being nice to each other,’ said TTCF CEO Lisa Dobey.

Probst said the climate started to change after the cities of Duluth and Superior adopted ordinances agreeing to abide by these rules. The most noticeable difference? People no longer tolerated impolite behavior in public settings.

‘After the resolutions were adopted, council members would speak up and say, ‘This is not acceptable,’’ she recalled. ‘It was a huge improvement. People ran for office who wouldn’t have otherwise.’

Trouble in Truckee
Over the past year, the TTCF began to notice a similar level of negative dialogue going on in the public arena, both locally and nationally. At home, the fight over the school board recall threatened to seriously divide the community, while the country-wide debate over President Obama’s healthcare reform had collapsed into a national yelling match. TTCF felt the time was ripe to borrow Duluth’s civility campaign.

‘With neighbors yelling at neighbors, with the angry blogosphere, with talk show hosts screaming over each other, the whole tone of society’s discourse is not something I’m very proud of,’ TTCF Board Chairman Fred Ilfeld told the 40 people gathered at Garwood’s on Oct. 1 for the Foundation’s North Shore kick-off campaign. ‘I can’t influence CNN, but I can do something here in our community.’

TTCF’s plan is similar to that of Duluth’s: get local government agencies to adopt the nine rules of civility, and get individuals to make the same commitment in their public and private conversations.

‘The goal is for all of us to learn to communicate in a more respectful way,’ said Dobey. ‘This is not a campaign to end disagreements; it’s to be able to feel safe disagreeing.’

Agreeing to Play Nice
Already, many government bodies have agreed to put the nine tools of civility on their board agendas for adoption. On Oct. 7, the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association/North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors unanimously approved such a resolution, becoming the first local organization to make the nine tools of civility part of their operating procedures.

‘I believe there is a need for it,’ said Steve Teshara, NLTRA executive director. ‘People get passionate about things and passion is good, but not when it gets personal.’

Teshara said that for the project to work, however, as many agencies as possible need to sign on. If just one board agrees to abide by the nine tools of civility, it won’t have as great an impact. Probst, of the Duluth Foundation, echoed Teshara’s advice: ‘The more people you can get involved, the better. It really needs to be a community-wide effort.’

The Tahoe Truckee School District Board of Trustees, which is probably the local organization that has been most affected by a lack of civil public discourse, on Oct. 7 heard a presentation on the Speak Your Peace campaign by the TTCF. Superintendent Steve Jennings hopes that a resolution adopting the project – which will come up for a vote at the Nov. 4 board meeting – can help repair a divided board and community.

‘I hope we can establish a culture where disagreeing is OK; it’s just more the way you disagree,’ he said. ‘There shouldn’t be personal attacks. Individuals shouldn’t personally suffer because of the way they voted.’

Even though the airport district may have been ahead of the game (it followed at least six of the nine rules of civility in its decision to address public concerns and buy Waddle Ranch), the board is still interested in the program. Two board members attended TTCF’s Speak Your Peace kick-off campaign in Truckee on Sept. 20, and four members committed to individually follow the civility rules. While Interim GM Scott said he’s not sure if an official presentation to the board is necessary, he does believe it’s beneficial to be reminded about the importance of polite behavior.

‘It’s always good to allow yourself to be refreshed on this stuff, it’s always good to take the time to reflect, to bring it to the forefront of your mind.’

~ msiig@moonshineink.com