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[whitespace] Planning commission tables a talk about communication

Saratoga--Another seven-hour Saratoga Planning Commission meeting occurred on July 26, prompting questions about meeting protocol.

The commission had a full agenda and a 5 p.m. starting time for a study session on the city's circulation element.

Commission Chairman Chuck Page said that while the commission should look at how much time it has taken recently to get through meetings, more importantly, the commission should look at how effective the meetings have been.

He said the meetings have become longer due to commissioners repeating questions and asking questions that could have been answered earlier by staff or found in the materials.

"What we need to avoid as a commission is repeating ourselves multiple times and delaying meetings," he said.

The commission had discussed communication problems and working relationships at its March retreat, and the commission held a follow-up meeting on June 14 to reconsider how Page, as the new commission chair, should run meetings. At that time, Commissioner Lisa Kurasch handed out a letter she had written that stated how she felt and that some commissioners were condescending and spent too much time talking about what should have occurred at meetings.

Page said that, because of these two discussions, the commission made some changes in meeting procedure. But he's not sure the changes are necessarily for the better.

The commission has tabled more discussion on communication problems, mainly due to scheduling conflicts. All commissioners want to be present at such a meeting, however, the August recess is coming up. Community Development Director James Walgren said the commission might not even bring these problems up again.

Page said that personally, he doesn't need another meeting, but if other commissioners still have problems they want to discuss, he would be all for it.

"I think there are some people who still have issues, but the issues haven't been clearly defined," Page said. "Its tough to solve a problem that's not clearly defined."

On July 11, at the end of the commission's site visits for its July 12 meeting, they discussed scheduling another retreat follow-up, according to reports from commissioners, but no date was set.

Commissioner Cynthia Barry said she suggested that the commission follow a certain procedure at the beginning of such a meeting if and when it occurs.

Barry, in a later interview, called the procedure "Technique X," but some commissioners present at the site visit said she termed it an "Indian Tribal Council Circle."

Barry said the commissioners had a brief and informal discussion at the end of the site visit in an attempt to schedule a study session. She suggested the procedure as a way to begin the study session. Barry described the technique as a very simple procedure often used by management teams wherein one person speaks at a time, without interruption or debate. Everyone takes a turn and there is no discussion after.

She said it is a general procedure and that the group involved decides the specific topic.

"It's a general procedure that can be used anywhere, it's not dependent on content, it's simply a procedure for people to listen to each other and for people to speak in turn."

Barry has used the technique in her work as a management consultant and clinical psychologist.

"I think it would be a good idea for the planning commission to begin the study session in this manner, to aid in listening," she said.

It is not certain whether the commission would use this procedure. Barry said she did not really get a response from others, and that the discussion was brief.

The idea of using an Indian Tribal Council Circle in business settings is relatively new, according to John Adams, a part-time San Francisco management consultant. He has seen the procedure used in the past five to 10 years. The only version of a council circle that he is familiar with firsthand has eight people sitting in a circle on chairs. There is no table, so that any hierarchy is broken down. The eight people each represent a compass position, each of which uses two focuses.

"When an idea is introduced, or proposal, it always comes in from the east only. They bring it into the circle and they bring it in with two focuses," Adams said. "When they finish, there usually is something like a talking stick ... whoever holds the talking stick gets the full attention of everyone else."

He said that as the stick is passed from person to person, the idea is discussed from 16 different perspectives.

"So its pretty comprehensive," he said. The group can keep going around the circle until the answer has become clear or the proposition has been adopted or rejected.

The procedure Barry suggested is not nearly as formal, but may be a variation on the council circle procedure, Adams said.

According to Barry, the name is not what's important, the technique is.

"The main elements of the technique are important; namely, number one, each member speaks in turn," she said. "Number two, others engage in active listening, rather than active critiquing. I suggested this technique to begin the followup to the planning commission retreat to elicit everyone's ideas before getting bogged down on one issue. Getting hung up on the name and losing the point would only serve to highlight the need for such a procedure."

According to Page, with any meeting the commission has to first look at what its objectives and goals are.

"There are a million ways to get ideas from people," Page said. "I think the planning commissioners all listen extremely well to all commissioners when they speak. It's all about making the meeting run most effectively and that's one style."
Kara Chalmers

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