Encouraging city leaders to find common ground with each other

Last week, the Association of Washington Cities held its annual conference in Vancouver, Washington. Founded in 1933, the AWC is a nonpartisan advocacy organization that represents Washington’s cities and towns before the state legislature, the state executive branch, and with regulatory agencies. The nonprofit consistently maintained 100% participation from Washington’s 281 cities and towns, and has a Board of Director that oversees their activities.

The conference featured a panel discussion focused on Washington state’s civic health, which was designed to create a conversation around finding common ground and developing genuine relationships — between local and state governments, between governments and higher education, and within the institutions themselves. AWC believes that city leaders, as nonpartisan officials in the government closest to the people, are uniquely positioned to address our civic health crisis and to counteract the current political divide by improving dialogue across differences and building community solutions to shared challenges.

Panelists included some of the Project for Civic Health‘s partners — The Ruckelshaus Center Director Julia Carboni, Lt. Governor Denny Heck, and UW Evans School Dean Jodi Sandfort — as well as Senator John Lovick (D-Mill Creek) and Representative J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm).

The partners discussed the Common Ground for the Common Good report’s findings about some factors contributing to the decline of our state’s civic health, namely social media and its algorithms that create echo chambers, the decline of local journalism, the lack of civic education, and the absence of leadership training that emphasizes listening.

They also shared about their experience hosting the Civic Health Summit last October, where nearly 200 people from diverse social and political groups across the state gathered. The partners found that, when given the opportunity and space to do so, people showed a willingness to be open and engage in genuine dialogues with those who held different thoughts and opinions.

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, who participated in last year’s Civic Health Summit, agreed on that finding. As a Republican from Eastern Washington, he understood the tendency to label or stereotype others from different backgrounds, and had experienced being labeled himself. He raised a concern that this tendency could drive us further apart and, with the election season nearing, could be very harmful to our society. “It is critical for us to figure out how we can diffuse the tension rather than fueling it,” said Rep. Wilcox.

Sen. John Lovick is one of the co-sponsors of a legislation which created the Joint Select Committee on Civic Health. Consisting of members of the state legislature. he stated that this new committee was a crucial step toward improving our civic health from the state legislative branch’s perspective. He also credited the bill’s passage to state legislators who can disagree on many issues while still respecting the individuals and the institutions, such as Sen. Nikki Torres (R-Pasco) who is the other co-sponsor of the bill. “Compromise is necessary to bridge the gaps between parties,” said Sen. Lovick.

Agreeing with Sen. Lovick’s points, Dean Jodi Sandfort noted that higher education institutions, such as UW, have a responsibility to promote democracy by encouraging debates and trust in both the community and civil society institutions. She also emphasized that compromising is necessary in a democratic society due to our diversity and pluralism of thoughts. “Challenging your own beliefs is an element for a functioning democracy,” said Dean Sandfort.

Lt. Governor Denny Heck contributed by highlighting the importance of finding common ground, disagreeing better with each other, and engaging in respectful public discourse. City leaders are responsible for achieving tangible outcomes and addressing complex policy issues for their communities. Without striving to reach principled compromises, it would be challenging to govern effectively. “Treat one another with respect and don’t be part of the outrage industrial complex,” said the Lt. Governor.

Partners of the Project for Civic Health with cohorts of the WA-CELI program

Lastly, the panel spoke about the inaugural WA-CELI program — a collaborative effort by the AWC, UW Evans School, and The Ruckelshaus Center. This training program was created to address one of the most pressing issues found in the Common Ground report, specifically “the absence of leadership training that emphasizes listening.”

The program aims to help reshape Washington state’s political culture into one that is more collaborative, responsive, and community-minded. It hopes to encourage local elected officials to engage with their constituents more authentically and work together across differences to tackle the problems their communities are facing.

Director Julia Carboni stated that leadership skills, including listening skills, are not intuitive; people need training through programs such as WA-CELI. She also strongly believes in the essence of building the relationships needed to develop good public policies. “To improve our relationships with other people, particularly with those who are different from us, we need to get to know each other better,” said Director Carboni. “We need to focus on the goods and take the time to talk and listen to one another.”

Sen. Lovick echoed her thoughts on the value of relationship building, and stated that we need to reward those good behaviors in order to teach other community members to do the same. “We need to share success stories of different people finding common ground and reaching principled compromises,” said the Senator, circling back to Lt. Governor Heck’s “outrage industrial complex” and how we can counteract its effects.

Despite the challenging nature of our divisions, the panelists held onto their hope and commitment to continue sharing this message across the state. They closed the discussion by reminding the audience to understand how their role and position in the government can be powerful and effective to improve civic health in our state. Since 66% of people still have trust in their local governments, this is an opportunity to be seized.