Serving On The Wasilla City Council And Dealing With Conflict

Contributed by Gretchen O'Barr, Wasilla City Council

I have always been a cheerful, optimistic person who rarely meets an enemy. When I was a child, one of my nicknames was “little laughing girl”.  I love people and if anyone gives me half a chance, I will treat them with respect and loyalty. 

One of my favorite quotes is from “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens: "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all my business.” 

This has been one of the guiding principles of my life. I really enjoy volunteer activities and using my time to help others. I have a Facebook page where I have listed many of my volunteer activities in a short biography. When I decided to run for the city council in Wasilla, it was a fairly easy decision because it would be a continuation of the type of service I have always been involved in. 

So it was with a certain degree of perplexity that I found out what can happen when you get involved in politics. I have no problem accepting that not everyone is going to like me or all my ideas. That’s to be expected. But sometimes the levels of vitriol and negativity have been quite overwhelming. And for those of you who are not wordsmiths, some synonyms of vitriol are: anger, wrath, fury, rage and temper. 

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you will be aware of many of these conflicts on the state and federal levels of government. One example are the news channels where the host has two (or more) guests with opposing opinions and they start talking over the top of each other and then the host jumps in. This leaves your head ringing because you can’t listen to three people at once. I could cite many other examples, but I’m sure everyone who has any interest in politics knows what I am talking about. It happens here at the borough and city level also. When did disagreeing with others become such a battleground?

Expressing an alternate point of view in an opinion column, blog, Facebook post or other forum should set the stage for thoughtful public discussion and debate. If it’s a very divisive issue, common sense should dictate that we listen and try to understand what the other side is trying to say. 

When I talk with people who completely agree with me, I am only getting an echo. But if I am willing to listen to someone who feels differently than me, I can accomplish at least one of two things. First, I might have a light bulb moment in which I realize why that person feels they way they do about their issue. It might encourage me to be more understanding or more compassionate toward them. Very few people have strong opinions without a reason. (You or I could think their reason is crazy, wrong or stupid, but it’s still their reason and we need to understand that.) Second, it could help me by giving me “ammunition” for my own viewpoint because I will know how best to counter their argument. Either way, I don’t lose anything by listening and giving others a chance to express their opinion and respecting them.

During this process, it is sometimes necessary to make a compromise. I’ve been told that to “compromise” is wrong and I need to stand firm on what I believe to be right. Yes, that is absolutely true if it comes down to serious moral issues. But as a member of the Wasilla City Council, those types of problems do not come before us. We have an opportunity to compromise and it’s not a four letter word. It should mean that nobody “wins” completely, but nobody “loses” completely either. 

Sometimes it is hard to assess how the public really feels about different problems. We elect people to office so we don’t have to have an election and vote on every single issue that arises. That would be illogical and impossible to do. I had someone tell me one time that they absolutely knew their side was in the majority because look at how many people with the same opinion were in attendance at the meeting! They were not aware of the phone calls or letters from people who did not attend the meeting because they were worried about being “confronted” by the people who did attend on a controversial issue. 

What citizen wants to come to a meeting to be treated to a show of rage and anger?  Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease and sometimes we need to step back and investigate the situation a little more. Just because you get more aggressive with your opinion doesn’t necessarily mean you are the “winner”.

I will use the ATV issue we had last year as just one example of a very divisive problem.  I heard some people basically say that all ATV riders were rude, selfish and destructive and we ought to do everything we can to get rid of them. On the other side we heard comments about the history and tradition of riding ATVs in this area, how we have too many laws already, how we ought to be able to ride anywhere we want and we shouldn’t all be judged by the bad behavior of a few scofflaws. 

Both sides wanted us to enforce existing laws; one side to cut down on destructive behavior and the other side so they would be allowed to continue in their sport. I challenge anyone to say that we shouldn’t have listened to both sides and attempt a workable solution. This is only one issue, but we face many similar problems at our meetings.

In closing, I would like to continue to encourage attendance at our meetings. It is so helpful to me (and the other council members) to know how the public feels about our city and the serious growing pains we are going through. We are there to represent you and our seats are non-partisan for a very good reason.  

I am there to represent, you, the citizen of Wasilla and not a particular political party. I take my responsibility seriously and hope that you will take your responsibility as a city resident seriously also. Our meetings are the second and fourth Monday of each month with a few exceptions. You can check Wasilla’s website or my Facebook page where I try to put a link to the agenda for each meeting.