Island Talkback: Jeff Cambra on Consensus Building 101
By Jeff Cambra
While I had not planned on addressing specific comments from my September 3 announcement regarding the Alameda Business Alliance and the attempt to build a consensus regarding a new parcel tax, a number of thoughtful questions were raised.
“j cloren” asked about my credentials, if I had any major successes, and what I brought to the table. All very fair questions.
I have experience as a hearing officer, a small claims court pro tem judge, mediating hundreds of community disputes, and representing clients in numerous litigation mediations. My mediation and facilitation training consists of attendance at the following workshops, seminars, and certificated programs: 40 Hour Community Mediation Training, SEEDS Community Resolution Center, Berkeley; Ron Kelly, 40 hour Business Mediation Skills Training, Berkeley; Basic Facilitation Training, Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, San Mateo; Sara Fisk, Ph.D., Group Facilitation Skills, Community at Work, San Francisco.
As for what I bring to the table? A strong belief in the community mediation process as a way of resolving differences and enough optimism to think it might work here.
People are naturally suspicious of anonymous groups and in reading the comments on my article, I see there are a number of people who want to know: Who is in the Alameda Business Alliance?
Communication and education are the keys to building consensus within any group and among various stakeholder groups. Listening, understanding, and considering other views can create new perspectives. Any impairment to the free communication between individual or group stakeholders can derail the consensus process.
In the context of the business community and a parcel tax, the 500-pound gorilla in the room is fear of retaliation through a rogue boycott. While it is clear that the school district and the organizers and supporters of any parcel tax campaign would never suggest or condone such a tactic, I have read the e-mails on parent networks and received by a business association which clearly indicate these authors would not support that business and would tell others not to do so if the business did not unconditionally support the parcel tax regardless of the financial impact on that business.
Caucusing (private, confidential discussions) is a technique mediators use to create safe environments where individuals can communicate their concerns, describe impacts, voice objections, and offer solutions to the mediator. Without caucusing, there can be no consensus building, because the various stakeholders never communicate their views to the other stakeholders. In the worst case scenario, stakeholders with similar interests send conflicting messages and solutions that actually harm other similarly situated groups.
So, how does a mediator balance the need for group confidentiality in order to further dialogue between stakeholders and address the legitimate public concern about knowing who is involved? To the extent possible and being mindful of a mediator’s duty of confidentiality, a mediator’s report can be generated that provides the substance of the discussions without disclosing the individual or group responsible.
Based on my experience, it is not the decision that is paramount, but rather the principles and rationale that guided the discussion which led to the decision. The six principles introduced in my earlier piece will be used as a foundation for discussions with the school district and other stakeholders. Another set of principles will be developed that will guide the discussion on what structure and tax rate would be acceptable to the group.
The new parcel tax structure principles can be released as part of a mediator’s report along with the highlights of any discussion that led to certain decisions. This way, the decision making process is transparent and confidentiality can be respected among the parties. Of course, the process works best when all the stakeholders are in the room.
To this end, if you or your association are part of a business stakeholder group, have an interest in the next parcel tax, and want to hear what other business interests are saying, I invite you to contact me through The Island. All contacts remain confidential.
Alameda Towne Centre
Finally, there seemed to be a lot of interest in Alameda Towne Centre, the number of parcels that make up the shopping area, and how much it pays in parcel tax. Towne Centre is on 15 parcels. One fact that seems to be absent from the discussion is the fact that Towne Centre is not one business. All of the tenants at Towne Centre are on triple-net leases, which means that whatever the parcel tax is, the charge is apportioned and passed on directly to the smaller as well as larger businesses within the center. In sharp contrast, there are several very large-parcel marinas that have only one business on the land, and they do not have the ability to distribute the tax among tenants.
Thank you all for your comments and views. I appreciate you contribution to the dialogue.
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