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Local citizens urge Willmar City Council to adopt Civility Project

WILLMAR -- Local citizens are urging the Willmar City Council to adopt a project that reminds and encourages leaders and the public to use respectful and civil communication.

A group of five citizens spoke to the council Monday night about the Speak Your Peace Civility Project being promoted throughout the community. The project recognizes nine tools of civility that promoters hope will increase options for civil discourse as individuals and organizations search for positive solutions and resolution to local issues.

The program was explained to the council by Gary Geiger, chairman of Heritage Bancshares Group of Willmar; Beverly Dougherty, project coordinator of the Willmar Design Center; and Annette Tiffany, Willmar Junior High School social worker.

Also present were Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce; and Dr. Doug Allen, president of Ridgewater College.

Geiger, who got the project rolling locally, said he uses the analogy of the airline stewardess who tells passengers how to buckle their seatbelt. Everyone knows how, but they need to be reminded, he explained.

Geiger heard about Speak Your Peace at an April meeting of community foundations. The project was started five years ago by the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation's Millennium Group.

Geiger said young leaders in the Duluth-Superior area asked people if they'd run for office. He said no one wanted to run because they said government was too nasty. The Duluth group studied the issue and came up with the Civility Project, which they launched in 2003.

Geiger was enthused about the project, sent e-mails to people in business, nonprofit organizations and government, and a group of 17 people has been discussing how they can persuade organizations in Willmar and Kandiyohi County to adopt the principles.

Tiffany said the project will be a topic for junior high students. Dougherty said the council and committees at Bethel Lutheran Church and at the Design Center have adopted the rules and speak the civility pledge.

Supporters brought the project to the council's Labor Relations Committee on Oct. 15. The consensus of the committee was that council members consider a resolution adopting the project during the council's strategic planning session in early 2009.

Council member Jim Dokken asked who will define what being uncivil is.

"We have freedom of speech and some people speak with a lot of passion,'' he said. "I have not heard the police chief or the city attorney say we have not been uncivil. If we have, I have not heard from anybody that we serve -- the public -- say you are not civil, and what are the penalties.''

Steve Gardner, Labor Committee chairman and project supporter, said the purpose is not to do away with free speech but is designed to restore respect.

Gardner said he did not know how being uncivil would exactly be defined, but he thought that most people would know it when they see it.

Gardner said the council could adopt rules of order on how to act, but he said he hasn't sensed a groundswell of support for that idea, "so perhaps the project might be more in order and palatable to the council.''

Project supporter Mayor Les Heitke said he thinks the project is a growing movement to bring civility throughout the community and thought it was right to begin in the council chambers.

"I think the movement was generated and propelled forward by some of the conduct and some of the comments and some of the discussion that took place in these chambers last winter and last spring,'' he said.

"I have heard many comments from citizens wanting the City Council to get its act together and to act civilly among each other and on behalf of the community.''

In other business, the council overturned a Labor Committee recommendation to appoint council member Denis Anderson to an advisory board that will work with Rice Hospital Board and a search firm finding a replacement for Lorry Massa. Massa resigned as Rice Hospital chief executive officer. The council replaced Anderson with Jim Dokken, the council's liaison to the hospital board.