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Officials to Take Course in Gift of Gab

January 03, 1988|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica's City Council will travel to an oceanfront resort next weekend for a $4,000 retreat aimed at teaching council members how to "communicate" better.

The city's seven council members, the city manager and assistant manager and two paid facilitators are scheduled to attend the meeting at an Oxnard hotel on Saturday and next Sunday.

The getaway, said to be a first for Santa Monica's council, is being organized by the brother-and-sister team of Alan and Roz Teller, the two facilitators, who have worked as management consultants here and for other cities and private companies.

City officials say they hope learning to communicate better--with each other and with the city manager's staff--will enable them to govern better and more efficiently.

One goal may be to cut back on those all-too-familiar City Council meetings that drag on into wee hours of the morning, with long debates that seem to resolve little, several members said.

"Maybe if we learned to listen more carefully to each other, we could get through a calendar item (of the City Council agenda) in 15 minutes instead of spending an hour . . . debating things that often don't need debate," Councilman David Finkel said. "We could get through work faster."

At the same time, he said, certain deeper philosophical differences will always spark debate.

However, discussion often gets bogged down in extraneous issues or in bickering that springs from one council member's suspicion that a colleague's position is politically motivated, several council members said.

"We could have more appreciation of where somebody is coming from and why," Councilman Herb Katz said. "On some issues, like development, after two hours of . . . rhetoric, we sometimes realize we really weren't that far apart."

City Manager's Suggestion

The idea for a retreat came during an evaluation of City Manager John Jalili last year. Similar respites have been used increasingly over the years by cities and businesses as a way to make plans or enhance training in a setting outside the workplace.

The bill for this retreat, which the city pays, includes a $3,000 fee for the Tellers, about $1,000 for room and board and $300 for a bus, Jalili said.

Roz Teller said the program would start with brainstorming to pinpoint what kinds of communications problems the council members and managers have, and then participants will act out games in which they play the roles of corporate executives.

She said the retreat is technically open to the public but indicated she preferred that outsiders not attend.

The officials involved pointed out that council members, once bitterly divided, have already made progress in working together and talking to each other.

Less Contentiousness

The two rival political factions that dominate the council, the All Santa Monica Coalition and the more liberal Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, hold three seats each. The seventh seat is held by an independent.

With neither faction holding a majority, the contentiousness that marked past years in Santa Monica City Hall has given way to a more conciliatory spirit. That spirit makes a retreat possible now when it would not have been in the past, several officials said.

"If they had tried this several years ago, they would have had to go on two separate retreats and maybe hire a referee," Jalili said. "Now, the council is increasingly issue-oriented. The team-building approach makes sense."

The timing for the retreat is opportune because several important issues, such as a new zoning plan and the on-going homeless problem, lie ahead in what will be an election year, Councilman Alan Katz said.

"Santa Monica, unlike other cities, has gone through a fractious history, said Katz (no relation to Herb Katz). "Those wounds are being dealt with, if not healed . . . so if you look at the fact that bridges have been built and important issues are coming up, the ability to communicate well will have an effect on those issues."

Breakdown in Process

"If we can communicate well, we can handle the issues," Katz said. "If not, the process gets bogged down, and the end product is not as good."

One example given by some council members of a breakdown in communications was a recent proposal from the city staff to allow film-making in Santa Monica's century-old Woodlawn Cemetery.

Councilwoman Chris Reed rallied members of the Santa Monica Historical Society to protest the measure, leading to an hourlong parade of people voicing their objections at that week's council meeting.

Mayor James Conn said the time was wasted because no one on the council was going to vote in favor of the measure anyway.

"Had there been communication, we could have saved the council and everybody an hour's time and not gotten people upset," Conn said.

"When we don't spend enough time talking to each other, then we make assumptions about why people are acting certain ways, and we usually guess the worst possible motive," Conn said. "If we can be straight enough with each other to be able to talk, then we can act based on reality rather than on assumptions that are usually wrong."

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