One commissioner keeps his mouth shut, even when he knows he should talk. Another finds himself disconnecting if a discussion goes on too long. A third admitted she can be “aggressively dismissive,” while yet another expressed frustration when her fellow leaders appear to be unprepared for debate.
In a sometimes-tense conversation with an outside consultant, Gwinnett County leaders parsed their own aversions and pet peeves, trying to set a new tone for their deliberations.
Even the act of considering better ways to debate is a far cry from the operations of many other local governments, where bullying and infighting can mean good governing falls to the wayside. Gwinnett has it’s own history of petty politics, with commissioners holding grudges and issuing reprisals over votes.
“I would like to think that other counties could see the example and learn from it,” said Carol Baker, leadership development director at the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “I’m very pleased it’s happening.”
As Gwinnett’s residents and leaders continue to move past the resignations and indictments of their previous board, the new commission — none of the five members have yet served a full term — are taking steps to rebuild trust, not only externally, but among themselves.
The goal is to create a code of conduct, which will catalogue how commissioners should act in meetings and with each other. If successful, it could lead to better government and a more attractive environment for businesses, Gwinnett commissioners say.
The first session in early September was spearheaded by commissioner Jace Brooks, who said he was motivated by a desire to rebuild trust and create a new leadership culture in the county. To engage in healthy discussion, he said, commissioners need to know how their colleagues deal with conflict.
“We need frank, open debate,” he said. “We’re making sure that we can passionately, yet respectfully, disagree.”
Respectful disagreement is sometimes missing in a metro region that has its share of contentious leaders. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has participated in venomous exchanges with political opponents on city council, and has financed the campaigns of their challengers. A disagreement in Snellville between city council members and the mayor will be heard before the state Supreme Court. Cobb County’s chairman has been accused of keeping his fellow commissioners in the dark while he pushed through the deal to bring the Braves to the county.
In Cobb, at least, learning to communicate is up to each of the commissioners individually, spokeswoman AikWah Leow said.
“They’re going to always have different opinions,” she said. “They’re all adults; they’ll go ahead and hash it out.”
Learning how to have healthy conflict can take time and instruction. The ACCG holds occasional classes on conflict resolution, Baker said, though the course is currently being redesigned, and won’t be taught again until 2016. A March 2011 class had eight participants, while there were 20 in Sept. 2013, the last time it was offered. No entire commission has participated.
The conversation Gwinnett’s leaders had isn’t about doing team-building exercises, but is focused on encouraging quality leadership said Rick Packer, who conducted Gwinnett’s training. Packer, vice president of consulting and training solutions at The Table Group, is a friend of Brooks’ and donated his time to the county. (Brooks does some work for the firm.) Packer said leaders are more effective if they aren’t worried that something they say or do will be held against them later.
“If they’re working better together, they should make better decisions,” he said.
That’s the goal of Gwinnett Chairman Charlotte Nash, who said the talks should help guide commissioners as they debate the best decisions for the county. Creating a level of comfort in communication means leaders will better respect each others’ opinions, she said.
Nash said she thinks the process will make decision-making more productive. It will ensure that commissioners aren’t making assumptions about their fellow leaders and how they operate.
“It’s a good thing the group is willing to put time into doing this,” she said. “I think it’s very healthy for us to acknowledge individually what our own weaknesses and preferences may be. …Anything we can do to help each other understand each other is worthwhile.”