Rob Karwath specializes in civility. It’s unfortunately a term rarely applicable these days, particularly given the currently polarized political arena.
Nevertheless, Karwath’s organization, the Speak Your Peace Civility Project, will be in action locally the week of March 9. The Eau Claire County Board has procured his skills to help increase awareness about how the county serves the community and encourage citizen participation in its decision-making.
“People of the county rarely have a complete picture of what a county does,” board chairman Nick Smiar said in a recent meeting with the Leader-Telegram editorial board. “We’re trying to get from ‘us/them’ to just ‘us.’”
Added County Administrator Kathryn Schauf: “County government is one of the most misunderstood levels of government. Most people don’t understand the intersection county government has with their lives.”
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Keep Your Peace, founded in Duluth, Minn., promotes nine tools of civility that include “pay attention,” “listen” and “give constructive criticism.”
“It is not a campaign to end disagreements,” reads the organization’s website (dsaspeakyourpeace.org). “Rather it is a campaign to improve communication by reminding ourselves of the basic principles of respect.”
Several public input sessions at different locations will be held during the local event in March. The County Board currently solicits public input through such avenues as social media and surveys. The hope is that Karwath’s approach will ramp up the level of participation.
“It’s not that fake nice,” he told the Leader-Telegram’s Ryan Patterson. “It’s about (the fact) we might really disagree, but we’re not going to call each other names, we’re not going to slam doors.”
“It’s taking the time to listen,” Schauf added.
“The challenge ... is getting the conversation going.”
Information gathered at the meetings will factor into strategic planning for the county and, ultimately, is expected to influence budget deliberations.
“As we continue to deal with the pressures of funding and requests for service,” Schauf said, “we’re going to need to have everyone’s voice in this conversation in a meaningful way.”
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Community partnerships and similar efforts are critical for a level of government that has finite resources. Enlisting organizations such as Speak Your Peace to leverage county resources is another step in the right direction.
“Having more heads in the game is more important than ever,” Karwath said.
“We can’t work in silos and expect to succeed,” Schauf added.
The jail population, highway work, social services and a myriad of other issues likely will arise at the meetings. And demographics and geography are among the factors that will influence citizens’ priorities in regard to such county services. Some topics will be heated, others less so.
“Let’s put everything on the table; no hidden agendas,” Smiar said.
Smiar defined success at the meetings as “how many people come to the table and feel free to talk.”
He also said successful outcomes are critical. Citizens should often be able to see their influence in the actions taken by the county.
“If they go away (from the meetings) and say, ‘Yes, OK, we got that done,’ that’s the motivation to keep going,” Smiar said, “so we have to do something they can walk away from and say, ‘Ok, that was worth it.’”
As county residents, we’ve been invited to a seat at the table. Let’s do our part by having our voices heard.
But let’s keep things civil.
— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor