The following is the most recent in a succession of posts focused on my home town. Though there is some context-specific stuff here, hopefully there will be some appeal to people beyond the confines of my home. This is merely a first attempt to articulate a different political foundation for leadership.  I write with many thanks to Jacques Ellul, Robert Thayer, Wendell Berry and Ivan Illich and I apologize to them for distortions of their ideas and work.  

(NB. I use “we” here though “we” for now is really “I”.  There is no grand following, there is not even (yet?) a core but there is hope that some of this may seep out more broadly)

We are the orphans of Davis politics.  In saying this we are not seeking pity.  Rather we want to acknowledge that we do not fit into the traditional dichotomy of “progressive” versus “machine Democrat” and, we want to lay out a vision for a third way that motivates our approach to decision making in our city.

Terms such as liberal, conservative, and progressive have little meaning in local politics (and seem to have less and less meaning even on the national stage–Bacevich, rather, refers to a “neoliberal consensus”); for at the local level alliances are built around a more parochial vision of what is needed and they form, un-form and re-form based on how interests and needs converge or diverge around local projects, initiatives and choices. We eschew these terms in favor a description of leadership that we hope will emerge in the coming years in Davis.

To do this we believe we must move away from a narrow “issues” focus that characterizes much local debate and define the kind of leaders we aspire to be: define the parameters that will guide our decision making across issues, initiatives and projects.

Fundamentally, we believe in leadership that is community-focused.  This does not imply the adoption of specific processes for decision making (participatory budgeting or planning, for example), though such tools may be helpful.  Rather, community-focused leaders are careful to solicit input from a variety of community members, interests groups and stakeholders.  They are not afraid to receive input from stakeholders who stand to benefit monetarily from a given decision, but they balance that input by expanding the field of those with whom they speak to find a way forward that will benefit the broader needs of the community.

Community-focused leadership does not guarantee that no mistakes will be made.  It does not seek to “balance” all interests or find a compromise that everyone can live with.  Instead, it seeks to broaden the base of influence and use evidence rather than appeals to emotion for decision making. And, it explicitly considers and articulates the tradeoffs involved in the decisions being made.

Further, community-focused leaders seek to make critical information available to all stakeholders.  It has become, perhaps, cliché, for leaders to say they want more transparency, but citizen-focused leaders push for it because they realize that building confidence in decisions (despite disagreements with them) and in the leaders that make them requires information to be shared broadly on as many platforms as possible.

A localist vision

Community-focused leadership is grounded not in a particular political philosophy but in a commitment to a strong “localist” vision of governance and decision making.  In other words, community-focused leaders are primarily concerned with creating resilient and sustainable local communities.

There are a number of key understandings and commitments that drive this localist vision and those who lead according to them we might call “localists”.  These understandings and commitments include the following.

  • Localists understand that communities are deeply embedded in and constrained by macro-level forces (including understanding how insertion in global economic and trade systems influence local decisions).  To be a localist is not to seek isolation.  Rather, localists are committed to finding the best solutions for local thriving given the constraints.
  • A localist analyzes and understands the macro-level constraints but this does not compel the localist to leave behind local decision making in order to achieve “greater impact” at higher levels of policy making.  Rather, a true localist begins and ends his/her political career in local public service.
  • While localists are focused on solving problems at the lowest level of governance possible and practice subsidiarity, they also work with other local actors to encourage entities at the state and national levels to cede more autonomy and decision making to local governments. They use their understanding of the local challenges to offer policy recommendations but do it in partnership with others facing the same challenges.
  • Localists work hard to gain a deep understanding of all contributors in a community—the men, women and children who live in and create the social bonds in a community.  They do not merely seek out the voice and concerns of the powerful, but make efforts to listen to and learn from diverse groups and individuals—including those traditionally excluded from having a voice.  They willingly place themselves in proximity to a variety of community members to learn from them in order to better represent their needs and concerns.  
  • It may go without saying, but localists know intimately the physical resources and constraints of their community and its place in the broader bioregion—they are constant learners of all things “local.”  This understanding leads to a commitment to conserve local resources (especially those that are unique to the community or bioregion) and use them in a sustainable way. They understand that there is no community without economy but strive for an economy that is honoring of local resources and those who work to nurture, share and sustain them.
  • Localists understand the tension that exists between the commitment to conservation–and the sustainable use of local resources–and the needs imposed on a community by broader global (macro) forces. They name the tensions, never pretend that all tensions can be balanced out, and articulate the basis for decisions they make in reference to the tensions and tradeoffs.
  • An understanding of the community’s place in a broader bio-region leads localists to nurture and invest in relationship building with other communities in the bioregion.  Localists understand that even “unique” resources are shared beyond narrow political boundaries and work with other leaders in surrounding communities to stretch scarce resources, avoid duplications in key services and provide for the bioregion’s broader needs.
  • Localists are committed to the economic, social and environmental health of the communities they lead.  They do not view the health of one of these as a “pre-requisite” for the health of the others but find ways to intentionally work towards all three—again, acknowledging the tensions and tradeoffs involved.

Given these commitments, localists rely on and nurture clear communication and conflict resolution.  They are inherently “conservative” because they are careful about the shepherding of local resources and approach change with prudence.  They are committed to the health and rights of the most vulnerable in the community and understand that formal political entities (e.g. city and county governments) often needs to play a role to assure that the needs of the most vulnerable are met.  Localists believe in local justice systems built on the notion of restoring wayward members to the community to the extent possible.  They are committed to providing economic development that provides opportunities for all members of the community: economic development consistent with values of the community and the many gifts and skills within it. Indeed the broad economic vision of the localist (as alluded to above) is to realize the flourishing of all members of the community—an economy that serves people and not the other way around.

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After a period of frustration concerning our public discourse about “the homeless”, “the poor” and “transients”, I wrote the following which was also published on a local newsblog The People’s Vanguard of Davis

In the last few weeks we have heard poor and homeless people in our community referred to (in public meetings) as “undesirable” and “unsavory”.  They have been called “trolls” who live under the bridge and, in this space, they have been referred to as “raccoons.”

The terms, whatever their intent, have the effect of dehumanizing real people, with real lives. I traveled to Rwanda in 2004—10 years after the massacre of an estimated 500,000 people.  It was a sad and troubling trip. In the years leading up to the massacre the Tutsis—the main victim group—were systematically dehumanized, called “cockroaches” and worse. 

Am I suggesting that by dehumanizing poor and homeless individuals in this community that we are headed for genocide?  No, I am not.  I am merely saying that words have consequences.  The dehumanization of the “other” ultimately dehumanizes us. Dismissing people as “the homeless” or, as is common in our newspapers, as “transients” ultimately makes them entities—things for which we have no responsibility, things with which we cannot engage in any meaningful relationship.

We cannot afford to do this.  As a community we must recognize the basic humanity in the other and afford them the respect of treating them as people, with intrinsic value because of their humanity.

And so, to “rehumanize” these people I offer the following vignettes.  These are snapshots of the lives of real people who live in our community (or who have passed through in recent years).  They are our neighbors. I offer them not to try to achieve some “politically correct” way to refer to them.  I offer them to remind us that the stories of poverty and exclusion and abuse and addiction are complex. 

I am not an apologist for their behavior… I am an apologist for their humanity. 

Please read their stories with a view to discovering their humanity and, in doing so, to reaffirm your own…

Lisa

Lisa was working part time and a part time student.  Involved in a steady relationship with her partner, she became pregnant but, soon after had a falling out with him and found herself alone.  She decided to continue her education after her son was born but could do so only because she received food stamps, health insurance for her son (but not her) and a small stipend from the college she attended.  Later she reestablished the relationship with her partner and became pregnant again.  They decided to move in order to save money but when her daughter was born the new county in which she lived would not provide her with the paper work to obtain health insurance for her newborn.  They moved again, due to violence in their community and to seek new opportunities in a new town.  She dreamed of going back to school while her partner earned minimum wage on two jobs that kept him working about 75 hours per week.  Neither adult–nor the baby–had health insurance when they moved and, this time, instead of transferring her health insurance (for her son) and food stamps to the new county (as is required) the old county merely deleted her records. Forced to reapply for insurance and food stamps in the new county she routinely received mailed notification of appointments days after they were to occur, others that stated she was missing unnamed paperwork that must be submitted by a date that had passed by days or weeks.  Two emergency health needs led to thousands of dollars in bills.  Her partner continued to work two jobs at minimum wage even as her daughter’s vaccinations lagged (she finally paid for them out of pocket for nearly $1000–while health workers chastised her for waiting so long).  She finally obtained food stamps and health insurance after an intervention by an elected official and she looks forward to starting school soon.

Steve

Steve is an outgoing and much loved homeless individual who has battled meth addiction for over half of his nearly 50 years.  He has learned to “get by” relying on the services of local homeless organizations, the help of friends (of which he has many) and by taking odd jobs that often come his way because he is a consistent and hard worker (when not on meth).  Steve was on a downward spiral and the staff of one agency finally convinced him that if he continued on that path he would come to an early end (as had several people Steve knows well in recent years).  He moved into a transitional housing shelter that was strictly a “clean and sober” environment.  And Steve did VERY well there.  He followed his case worker’s advice, stayed on his plan, went to his meetings and after doing some volunteer work landed a solid job at a supermarket.  It included health care and paid a decent wage.  Steve was able to move out of the transitional housing shelter into a place of his own and was a valued colleague at work. And then he disappeared.  A month later he showed up at the shelter, downcast.  “One night”, he said.  “It took only one night for everything to fall apart.”  Steve has gone down hill since. He panhandles to earn enough for the thing he craves and is back to couch surfing and scrounging food where he can.  

Ed

Ed had a steady job as a bouncer at a local club.  He loves the music and camaraderie of that scene but when the recession hit, Ed lost his job overnight and found himself with no immediate prospects.  Some time earlier he had divorced his wife and was required to provide child support for their teenage daughter.  Most of his wages–beyond his basic needs–went to child support (he later learned that erroneous calculations made by the court meant he had been overpaying but he could do nothing to recuperate the money).  He had no savings as a result and lacked basic budgeting skills.  He lost the room he was sharing with a “friend” when that friend failed to pay his share.   He ended up sleeping in his car but when the weather turned cold and his car died he showed up at a shelter.  He had no income for food and had no experience applying for food stamps–was not even sure where to start.  He received help to get food at the shelter and was required to seek work as a condition of staying there.  He applied for dozens and dozens of jobs but without a car his options were limited. Buses did not go near many of the places where he might find a job and though he had a bike, the combination of bus and bike did not always work because bus bike racks were full.  After 9 months he was able to find a decent job paying minimum wage (no health insurance) near a bus line and in a short while was able to seek housing closer to his work.  The “eviction” however continues to haunt him and at best he can get a single room thanks to an understanding (and needy) landlord–elderly and desperately in need of someone to live with her to provide some security.  But that is another story…

Nick

Nick has done time.  His charges are all drug related–mostly possession–but he bears the modern “scarlet letter”–not A, but C for Criminal.  He was released on parole because his offenses were non-violent but was required to stay within the state.  But… family problems led him to decide to break his parole and go home.  But home held no work prospects and so he returned and was arrested on a “technical” violation.  He had failed to complete a drug rehab program and went to jail for leaving the state.  While in jail he received health care and had a regular diet and did well. Upon his release (still under supervision) he obtained indigent health care support in his county and used various shelters and food pantries and free meal programs to survive.  In good weather he camped with friends often staying a step ahead of the police who would role through and toss the camps.  He fell ill with pneumonia and ended up in the emergency room of a nearby hospital.  They confirmed the diagnosis and, because he had indigent health care support his ER visit was covered and they prescribed an antibiotic. Strangely, they gave him the first 2 days of a 6 day course in the ER but he had to go to a pharmacy to obtain the other four days.  The only problem was, the closest pharmacy was in the next town over (no pharmacy in this town would accept indigent care prescriptions) and so he was forced to take a bus and transfer 3 times in the pouring rain, with active pneumonia, to get his prescription.  Since then Nick has had another technical violation due to his inability to pay back fines and charges (he has no source of income).  He is on the street and using in a form of self-medication to make it through the day.

?

I don’t know her name… but she showed up in mid-winter at the shelter.  She was, young, well dressed and articulate.  Some people assumed she was a volunteer at the shelter.  When dinnertime rolled around she approached staff and asked “Who made this food?”  When told it was volunteers she said she could not eat it because someone was trying to poison her–actually had been for some time.  It took quite a bit of conversation to convince her it was okay but other issues came forward–fear, paranoia of a debilitating nature.  She had come under circumstances that were not clear from somewhere in the midwest.  A call to the emergency number she provided yielded a conversation with a psychiatrist who, for reasons of patient/doctor confidentiality, would tell nothing about her.  She was without money, with a small backpack containing some clothes, no direction, no plans, just looking for a dry warm place to sleep.  As a young woman on the streets she was vulnerable.  She stayed in the shelter for a few weeks and accessed other services but refused counseling, revealed little about herself and then disappeared as quickly as she had come.

Note: this is another post concerning some issues of concern in my own “nearby”.  These are challenging times and as I think about the prospect of helping lead our city I realize that I must wrestle with these issues and offer imperfect solutions to intractable problems.

True hope…has not a grain of sense or of logic except when the worst is considered certain.

(Jacques Ellul in Hope in Time of Abandonment)

It may not be the “worst” but it is certain that our city’s fiscal situation is dire. According to the City Manager’s report to the City Council on December 17[1]:

In preparing its FY 2014/15 budget, the City will be facing a structural imbalance of up to $5.1 million in the General Fund.

That structural imbalance is on total General Fund expenditures of $47.5—about 11% of expenditures. Without changes we will have an aggregate General Fund balance of negative $28.4 million by FY18/19. Unlike the federal government, the City of Davis cannot run General Fund deficits, so something must be done.

Fund Balance

Before discussing options, note two additional points:

1. Four critical cost areas are driving imbalances:

  • increased costs to the city for water;
  • increased costs of retiree medical coverage;
  • increased contributions to employee pensions;
  • increased cost of employee cafeteria plans.

2. The situation is actually worse than the figures provided above indicate because of a fifth cost center: repair of deteriorating streets.  The projected budgets include a “front loading” of critical street repairs in the next two years of $25 million and $2 million per year for 18 years after that. However, spending this amount will leave our streets in 20 years time in a much worse condition than today.  Indeed, something approaching an additional $7 million per year would be needed to maintain our current acceptable “pavement condition index” in 20 years.

There is no magic bullet solution to these challenges. We have two broad options: cutting expenditures and increasing city revenues.

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I was reading Robert Thayer’s Life Place: Bioregional Thought and Practice in which he builds hypotheses about what it means to be grounded (my word, not his) by talking about my “home”.  And I had to stop because I was overwhelmed…

Overwhelmed by a sense of love—as tangible as any I have experienced—for my nearby.

Can one “love” a place? 

Yes, I say. 

As one yearns for more time with one’s beloved, one can yearn for one more sun-drenched day in late autumn in the fields of the valley that is my backyard.  Like the proud father of a growing child, one can tell the stories of the amazing abilities of this land to heal and revive.

Sometimes I wonder if it is the geometry of the place that reaches into my heart (I love straight lines and order).  The fields and roads in a grid create peace, clarity and predictability.  But then.  Then I ride a contour or wind through a valley and find the unpredictable—the lack of symmetry—even more comforting than the lines.  And I rest by the road out of breath and panting in thirst for more. More and more.  A thirst happily unquenched.IMG_0041

I remember when I first came here and (this sounds strange) I stopped one day on my bike and actually (it’s true) pinched myself to see if I was really here.  Here in this too flat, sun-scorched, valley.  Here, where the hills and mountains beckon east and west but never approach the stacked heat of a summer afternoon.  Here, along the packed earth fields and trickling creeks. 

I have loved a woman going on 35 years, children for more than half that, and grandchildren for a smaller wedge of time. 

I know love. 

It is companionship and trust.  It is perseverance and hope.  It is a longing to be with and for and to.  And I feel and know of all of that for this place. 

It caught me by surprise and I blush at my schoolboy rush of emotion—my longing to merge with it, be rooted in its soil.  To flow forever into its history and narrative. 

I remember as a child running to the far end of the yard in the Pennsylvania piedmont, singing as I ran “California here I come…” and there was a deep longing in a space near my heart.  I knew not what I sang and that land was far and I was not sure it existed.  Now I know that even then—even then—I  “discerned” that there was a place where I could find place (does that make sense?)

This is my life-place.

 

SES

Posted: 27 November 2013 in Faith and Life

You know how it is.  You hear yourself say something and then wonder, “Where did that come from?”  I am not talking about a classic faux pas said in front of a room full of strangers.  I am talking about something much more subtle.  Something that may have sounded perfectly reasonable (intelligent even).

But something that rebounds to your ears and announces that you have changed; and not in a good way. That rebound stings.

And so I found myself saying: “So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for SES.” 

Innocuous right?

SES: Socioeconomic Status.  That still-ubiquitous summation of something we all know but really don’t understand.  And the rebounding words transported me back to the first week of graduate school.  A time when I had never heard of a “p-value” nor would have understood what it really meant to “control” for anything.  But still I remember the forum.

It was an informal session in the student lounge during which people who had just finished their masters program could discuss their experiences with the incoming class.  Conversation ranged from which courses to avoid to which libraries to use.  From how to snag a good advisor to how to make sure you took courses that added up to something coherent.

And then a woman spoke up (and it’s funny, I don’t remember anything else specific from that day but I do remember this) and said something like: “You are going to hear a lot about SES. Practically every study you read will claim to ‘control’ for it. Don’t accept it at face value.  It hides more than it reveals.  It is an easy way to pretend to say something rather than deal with the reality of what really makes people sick—and keeps them that way.”

And that was it.  And I was careful.  I remember asking about it nearly every time it came up in a study and it never really meant the same thing.  Mostly it just meant “income level.”  Sometimes it was a constructed index of poverty, sometimes it was linked to race.  Sometimes educational level.  Sometimes geography.  It meant something but I was never sure what without doing some serious digging. 

I decided then to never use it but to always drill down and find out what it really meant. 

But over time…

And so here I was all these years later pretending to say something but not saying anything at all.  I should have said

“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for having to work two jobs with no health care and actually earning half the minimum wage when you consider how many hours they had to spend commuting by a mediocre public transit system…”

Or

“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for, being a mom with sick kids and no access to health care and having food stamps that magically get cancelled or reduced because some so-called leader far away decides you are a moocher though you have worked harder than they ever will…”

Or

“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for, being a non-native English speaker who breaks his back making your food and then gets threatened by a boss saying that he will be fired unless he works three straight shift despite having a severe burn caused by the lack of safe kitchen practices…

Or

“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for trying to find child care that is priced such that only one of three jobs is required to pay for it…”

Or

“So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for being addicted for so long that the paranoia of not getting a fix permeates every waking hour and there is no way to find a way out because down here the only people I ever talk to are people dealing with the need for the same fix…”

Or

And you get the picture.

You can’t “control” for these specificities.  I know that.  The point is I can’t control for the myriad causes and effects of exclusion and I should not pretend that a study that claims to do so has much of value to teach me.  These crude models create the dehumanization they purport to try to come to terms with. 

So next time I say something like “So, in these studies I am assuming they controlled for SES” please smack me, hard, before the rebound reminds me of how callous I have become.  

Yup, I am going to run for City Council

Posted: 11 October 2013 in Uncategorized

Here is an announcement I sent out to friends and colleagues in my city of 65,000 today.  

As a committed localist I feel that this commitment is consistent with seeking the good of my local community.

I will be taking Yoder, Ellul, Illich, Berry and all my Anabaptist friends on the “trail” with me.

Wish me wisdom, discernment, integrity and grace!

INVITATION to Robb’s Announcement of his Candidacy for the Davis City Council, Saturday October 26 at 10:00 am in Downtown Davis

Dear Friends – I am excited to share with you that I have decided to run for the Davis City Council in the June 2014 election.  If you are receiving this it is because I have worked with you on issues related to bicycling (safety and promotion), cooperative housing, downtown parking, restorative justice, the challenges of homelessness, exclusion and addiction, or… just because we are friends or our kids played soccer together!

Over 12 years living and working in Davis, my experience in all these areas has deepened my understanding of our city and increased my desire to serve its residents on the City Council.  I am running for City Council because:

1.  I want Davis to be a socially, environmentally, and economically healthy city.

2. I believe I will be an effective Council member. Davis faces challenges and opportunities in protecting and sustaining community health.   To face the challenges and make the most of opportunities we need elected officials who can weigh alternatives, analyze tradeoffs and make informed and transparent decisions.  I believe that I can do these things.

I will bring my experience and the following strengths to the process: I am a good listener, able to ask relevant questions and probe to go deeper; I am a tireless worker who prepares for the task before me; I am able to take complex topics and articulate them in ways that citizens can understand; I am respectful of others and value team work to solve problems.  Most importantly I am willing to learn and go on learning to improve my ability to make informed decisions.

3. A city needs more from leadership than simply making decisions.  It needs leaders who can help create and nurture a vision for the future.  I am a forward looking person. As I learn about the city, its problems and its potential, I will work with citizens to identify our values, assure that our policies are consistent with them, and seek creative ways to implement these policies.  I will listen, learn and respectfully walk with my neighbors to chart our collective future.

This campaign begins with my official announcement on Saturday, October 26 at 10:00 am at the City Property at 5th and D Streets (on the southeast side of the intersection, just west of the fire station).  This is the location of the Davis Community Meals Cold Weather Shelter and the STEAC Resource Center.  Please plan to come!

I relish the idea of seeing lots of familiar smiling faces, enjoying one another’s company, on the 26th.  I promise not to talk too much—this is mainly a chance for you to show your support. At the same time, I hope you will consider how you can help translate my candidacy into an election win through whatever role fits you, your time commitments and your gifts. I can tell you that there is a lot to do, including:

  • helping with website design
  • conceptualizing brochures and lawn signs
  • walking neighborhoods  to let people know why I am running
  • inviting your friends over for a “meet the candidate” coffee (or dessert !)
  • getting mailings ready
  • providing a financial contribution to help get the word out about why I am running
  • hosting your very own fundraising event

If you think I would make a good councilman then I am asking you to help make it happen.  Your most valuable contribution will be the thing dearest to you (and me): your time.

One more thing!  I would like to build a list of people are willing to go on record—have their name appear  in black and white—saying “I support Robb”.  In other words, I am asking you for an endorsement.  If you are willing to do that, please respond to this email saying “I endorse you Robb!” (be sure to put the exclamation point).  I sincerely appreciate it.

Oh, wait, one more thing!  Please forward this email to friends who you would like to inform of my candidacy and invite them to come on the 26th.   They may contact me directly if they would like to endorse me or otherwise connect with this campaign.

Please let me know if you have any questions.  I look forward to seeing you on the 26th at 10:00.

Thank you,

Robb

This is another article related to a local challenge we face in my hometown and a suggestion about how we might deal with it non-punitively.  It appears in a local newsblog and you can go there if you want to see the comments of some local folks. 

There is little doubt that some of our neighbors in Davis have health problems that are exacerbated by wood smoke.  There is also little doubt that other neighbors enjoy having wood fires and that some use wood or wood products as a way to heat their homes.  This leads to a conflict over interests/needs, but it is a conflict that is fairly localized—that is, between people who live near one another, people who share a common space and who, presumably, would be best served by resolving the conflict themselves without the automatic threat of punishment from the city.

We have the tools and resources to deal with wood smoke conflicts in this way—to find alternative forms of conflict resolution that will serve the needs of those whose health is adversely affected while providing those who desire to burn wood some latitude to do so.

I would propose we consider two options to help neighbors resolve such conflicts:

First and foremost, people should be given resources so they can seek out neighbors and deal face-to-face with them in a respectful and direct way.  Some people with health conditions would no doubt like to talk directly with neighbors whose fires are causing harm, but they may not be sure how to go about it.  A first option would be to provide sufferers with a “script”—a standardized language that they might use to talk to their neighbors.  Such a “script” helps people have respectful and clear language to use in talking to others.  It could go something like this:

My name is X and I live at X.  I (or a family member) suffer from a respiratory/heart/other condition that is made worse by wood smoke.  There are times when smoke coming from your house has been harmful to me (my family member).  Most recently on X date smoke caused Y.  I am not here to tell you to stop burning wood. I am asking you to understand the problems smoke causes me (or a family member) and ask you to consider working with me to try to diminish the effect.  Here is some literature that the City has produced about when it is okay to burn and when it is not. Maybe we could chat about the recommendations once you’ve had a chance to read them. These recommendations may not work in every case, but I think if you would be willing to follow them it might help resolve the problem I am having.  Also, I would be happy to give you my phone number so we can keep in touch about this and find a way to work things out in the future.  I really desire that you understand I don’t want to cause you a problem. I do want you to understand how smoke affects me (or my family member).

As implied in the script (and it is a VERY rough idea of how it might look), the city would also provide a brochure on safe burning practices and products that neighbors could share with each other and discuss.  Both the script and the brochure could be downloaded from the City website.  Please note that such a script helps the person focus on his/her needs (or those of a family member) and seeks to develop a shared, dialogue-based approach to dealing with the problem.

While such an approach might help some people, others may be unwilling or fearful to use it (or may have tried it without success) and would benefit from assistance from a neutral third party.  A third-party organization (a non-profit for example) could be assigned by the city to handle cases in which an affected party needs help to deal with a neighbor.  The third-party organization would be staffed with trained volunteer mediators.  In this case the process would work as follows:

1. A person who is affected by wood smoke would contact the assigned agency and provide a summary of their concern and the address of the house from which the smoke is coming.

2. The agency would send a letter to that address that would state the problem and refer to relevant city ordinances but stress that the neighbor would like to deal with this without involving the city.  The letter would also stress that participation is voluntary and that a facilitated discussion among parties could be set up to occur over the phone or in person to try to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution.  The letter would include the same brochure from the city referenced above and ask the person to read it. The letter would provide contact information for the agency (but NOT the neighbor) and could include the following:

We would ask you to contact our agency via email or phone, referencing this letter.  The following are options available to you in response to this letter:

1.  If you believe that the person who is seeking to discuss this matter with you is in error—because you do not burn wood, were not burning wood during the period in question, or for any other reason—please let us know.  We will get back in touch with the person for follow up with them. Mistakes can be made, and we want to assure that there are no misunderstandings.

2.     If you would like to commit to following the guidelines in the brochure, please let us know and we will happily monitor how things go with your neighbor and be back in touch if there is a problem.

3.     If you would like to speak with your neighbor in a facilitated dialogue to understand their concerns or try to reach another solution, please let us know. Also, let us know whether you would like to do that face to face or over the phone.

4.     If you prefer not to take any actions at this time, let us know, and we will inform your neighbor. 

If we do not hear back from you by XXX, we will assume you have chosen the fourth option and will inform your neighbor, who may choose to take other actions.

Whatever you decide to do, please recognize that we will not be sharing any information about your decision with the city. Any discussions we facilitate are confidential. We are mediators seeking to help resolve this issue and are independent of the city even though they have assigned us to play this role.

The foregoing examples are rough but provide ideas about how a voluntary conflict-resolution strategy related to wood burning could work.  Such an approach puts the tools of non-violent and non-punitive conflict resolution into citizens’ hands, thereby strengthening our social web while reducing the burden on the city.

Davis is fortunate to have experienced mediators (some of whom were part of the one-time city-funded community mediation program) who are willing to volunteer their time to manage such a program and offer facilitation services for it.  It is my hope that such approaches will become routine in dealing with conflicts in our city.

(Thanks to Diane Clarke for her input on this article)