Have you ever been an argument that heated up and personalized until you almost forgot what you were arguing about? Did we just finish doing that over the proposed charter amendments?




I've lived 35 years in this Valley and I'm stretching to remember a campaign that tasted worse than this one. It migrated from a debate over who should hire and fire department heads and a series of language revisions to a Marvel Comics clash between the Lackeys of the Corporate Elite's March to World Domination and the Paranoid Vipers Who Will Say or Do Anything to Stop Progress.




It is not hard to see what happened. On the world stage you are in fact witnessing the conversion of public resources to engines of corporate profit. You are also seeing attempts to consolidate government power and reduce public accountability, usually under the cheerful guise of "efficiency" or "security." It makes sense to keep your antennae up.




Along comes a campaign to change the City Charter, a cluster of revisions of authority and governing process that aim to solve problems you didn't know existed. There's "streamlining" language more suited to a lawyer's taste for tidiness than the powerful fact that public trust in government is in a nosedive.




It's healthy for us to ask hard questions. It's not healthy to unload a cauldron of accumulated anger and fear on the heads of those who brought these measures to the ballot. That's what some critics did.




Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. These measures were the unanimous recommendation of a mixed group of citizens who spent hundreds of unpaid hours slogging through documents and testimony. None of them have noticeable ties to Halliburton, Exxon-Mobile, Nestles or Paul Wolfowitz. For some peculiar reason a few of these volunteers got touchy about attacks on their character by people who for the most part spent little time examining the issues and didn't take opportunities to offer input along the way. Some committee members fired back until it seemed that you couldn't oppose these measures without being a know-nothing obstructionist or one of the fools they duped.




What a brew we're left with: the transferred frustration of those unhappy with global trends of increasingly concentrated power and profit, mixed with the offended frustration of volunteers who worked so long on the ballot proposals, topped off by the confused frustration of neutral citizens trying to understand clearly what they were voting on.




What happens to all this frustration now? Maybe it will just melt away with the passage of time. Maybe Ashland homes will sell for $25,000 next week.




We won't create a civil civic life in this town by editing governmental language. Pick any Council/Mayor/Administrator structure that's been discussed and you can find examples around the country of both highly effective and completely dysfunctional Ashland-size cities. The important difference among them is the investment in personal relationships, among officials, among citizens, across categories.




Maybe instead of forming more committees we could start with a few deep breaths. We're supposed to be good at that in Ashland. We could revisit conclusions we've come to about some of our neighbors. Who's the public figure in this community who annoys you most? What if you invited that deeply flawed person out for coffee or chai and conversation? What if, dropping your bias coming in, you asked what s/he wants Ashland to be and what s/he sees advancing or blocking that vision? What would you hear that you don't know now? What could that do for your frustration level? Finding out will cost you about five bucks and an hour of time.




No, that's not Kumabaya playing in the background. There are class and values difference among us that limit Ashland's potential harmony. But there's a lot of territory between that limit and where we are now. We need some small leaps of faith. Can you bring yourself to assume that Ashland's civic players, flaky, arrogant or rigid as they may sometimes seem, actually care about the quality of Ashland life as much as you do? That for all the opinions that separate us on this issue or that, there really is a common interest &

a vibrant, enjoyable, safe city &

that we can more fully nurture?




If only that were as simple as proposing a ballot measure. And if only this challenge were confined to Ashland. On our tiny stage we're playing out the larger national drama. To hang on to any hope at all for a bright American future, it sure would be helpful to start making progress in our little town.




is the host of public radio's The Jefferson Exchange and author of As If We Were Grownups ()