ARIZONA TOWN HALL: AN INNOVATION STUDIED AROUND THE WORLD

by Tara Jackson, President, Arizona Town Hall

What if there was a way to resolve tough policy issues that made communities stronger, instead of splintered? What if there was a way for political and cultural differences to be a source of creative solutions, instead of raucous divisions? There is. It’s called the Arizona Town Hall.

The process used by the Arizona Town Hall is so unique and makes such a great impact that delegations from other countries frequently travel to Arizona to learn how it’s done. In the words of former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, “There’s really nothing quite like it.”

Arizona Town Hall began in 1962 when Arizona’s political, business and civic leaders were seeking new ways to bring a growing state together. Over the course of its 55-year history, the Town Hall refined its methods, adapted to changing times, and, along the way, created generations of informed leaders and lasting changes that continue to benefit the state.

What makes the process so special?

So much of our policy debates involve just that—debates. Debates often create winners and losers, polarizing parties and entrenching positions. If a solution is reached, it is reached through wrangling and compromise. Innovative ideas that rise above the fray often do not have the space to even be mentioned, let alone discussed. Meanwhile, communities become fractured and divided. One need only to look at our current political climate to see the stagnating and destructive result of policymaking based on polarizing debates. For those who want to solve challenging issues while strengthening relationships and building communities, there is no better process than the one developed and refined by the Arizona Town Hall.

The Arizona Town Hall process uses a model of fact-based consensus. Every part of the process is designed to create an environment in which diverse perspectives come together to create solutions built on objective facts, innovation and imagination. This unique method is premised on the belief that the best solutions happen when all voices have equal value. A CEO may bring the perspective of knowledge and experience, while students and artists are the most likely to field innovative approaches and ideas. When these different perspectives are brought together, magic happens.

How does it have an impact?

The impact of the Town Hall is as varied and long-lasting as its participants. By far, the most important impact is the one it has on its participants. Many, like Jon Kyl, use their involvement with the Town Hall to develop an understanding of policy, refine leadership skills and build relationships across political and professional lines. Others, like the State of Arizona’s recently appointed Chief Operating Officer Gilbert Davidson, find ways to use Town Hall methods to make government more efficient and responsive to its citizens. Student participants often report their experience to be life-changing—inspiring them to change career paths or igniting a passion for civic participation and leadership that lasts a lifetime.

Town Hall sessions are a fertile ground for policy solutions, which participants then champion and implement. As a result, every Arizonan has felt the impact of the Town Hall, whether they realize it or not. The recommendations of participants are memorialized into a written recommendations’ report that is combined with the background report and then widely disseminated. The report creates “shovel- ready” solutions for Arizona’s business and civic leaders. While Arizona Town Hall is the neutral facilitator and therefore cannot be the implementer of the ideas developed, participants routinely cite the concepts discussed and relationships made at Town Hall gatherings as the basis for lasting changes. These changes include items as diverse as the establishment of the merit-selection system for judges, the Groundwater Management Act, the license plates seen on daily drives stamped with “It shouldn’t hurt to be a child,” freeway systems, programs to recruit and retain teachers, economic development tools, local ordinances and individual changes in behavior that help to preserve and protect Arizona’s natural environment.

Changing with the time

Recognizing the impact of the process on our youth, as well as the importance of their perspective, a Future Leaders Town Hall was initiated in 2011. Communities and schools across the state hold these Town Halls using a toolkit of materials provided by the Arizona Town Hall.

Inspired by the popularity and success of the Future Leaders Town Halls, Arizona Town Hall established Community Town Halls. Whether defined geographically or by interest, Community Town Halls allow a greater number of Arizonans to weigh in on the issues and to experience the process. These community sessions, which are generally shorter in duration, allow for unique perspectives from rural, tribal and other areas to be presented at the statewide Town Hall and to Arizona leaders. Community Town Halls also emphasize individual and community action—creating civically engaged change agents, who begin to implement ideas immediately within their community.

Bringing the process to business and government

Consulting contracts have played an increasing role in funding the operations of the Town Hall while accomplishing its mission. Clients range from private corporations to civic groups and governmental entities. Lake Havasu City credits the Town Hall process for its success in placing second in the “America’s Best Communities” competition, an award that included $2 million to implement ideas developed at the Town Hall.

Whether for a city, a community or the entire state, this unique Arizona innovation strengthens relationships across the state and creates lasting positive change.

 

Meet Billie Orr, Board Member, Arizona Town Hall

An advocate for public education, Dr. Orr earned her BA, MA and doctorate in education leadership from Arizona State University. Dr. Orr was active in public education for over 25 years, ultimately becoming the Associate Superintendent for Arizona. She was also VP of Continental Bank in Phoenix. Dr. Orr is active in her church, Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters, Women of Influence, Republican Women of Prescott and currently serves as a Prescott City Councilwoman.

Why did you personally feel a desire to get involved with AZTH?

I am impressed with the process of how Arizona Town Hall takes significant issues facing our state and begins the discussion and dialogue from the grassroots within communities. The process is respectful of all points of view, and civil discourse is welcomed from all participants.

What do you see as the most important issue(s) AZTH is addressing in the region?

The most pressing issue facing our local communities and the state of Arizona is inadequate funding of Arizona’s public education. Whether we are discussing public district schools or public charter schools, the state is required by our state constitution (Article 11, Section 10) to adequately fund our public schools. The data clearly demonstrates that is simply not happening. Our public schools are in crisis. There is a tremendous shortage of qualified teachers in our schools, and we continue to lose teachers.

What work are you doing to address these issues?

I would welcome the opportunity to help bring greater awareness to this issue. We must educate the general public with true facts and data that demonstrate the severity of the issue and, together, take suggested solutions to the state legislators.

What can the community do to support you and AZTH in your efforts?

Engagement. The community could assist greatly in helping get the word out via neighborhood meetings, coffees and simple gatherings to inform and help organize solutions.

If you could snap your fingers and have three key changes made to better our community, what would you choose?

(1) Having all public schools adequately funded. (2) Having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. (3) Having parents truly engaged in their child’s education. With the right leadership, all three goals are achievable!

 

Meet Pat Norris, Chair-Elect, Arizona Town Hall

After practicing law with Lewis and Roca, Phoenix, for 25 years, Norris served as a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals for almost 14 years. Norris retired from the court in June 2017. She is now supervising lawyer development at the ASU Alumni Law Group, a teaching law firm. Norris and her husband have a home in Prescott.

Why did you personally feel a desire to get involved with AZTH?

AZTH brings Arizonans together to discuss critical issues facing the state using a fact-driven process that, after exploring differing points of view, generates consensus-based solutions to address these issues. Today, more than ever, we need fact-based, consensus-driven decisions and approaches to the problems facing the state. AZTH gives me the opportunity to participate in this problem-solving process.

What do you see as the most important issue(s) AZTH is addressing in the region?

Pre-K-12 education funding.

What work are you doing to address these issues?

I am working with Arizonans around the state to facilitate the discussion of education funding and then to act on those discussions.

What can the community do to support you and AZTH in your efforts?

Community members should go to the AZTH website and read the background report on Pre-K-12 education funding and the report summarizing the recommendations for improving Pre-K-12 funding reached by the participants at the statewide AZTH in November. They should advocate for these recommendations, become a member of AZTH and participate in AZTH community and statewide programs.

If you could snap your fingers and have three key changes made to better our community, what would you choose?

It would be community commitment to civil dialogue at all community meetings; community recognition that, on most contentious issues, people agree on many points; and community commitment to implement the points of agreement on these contentious issues rather than spending hours debating the points of disagreement.

 

Meet Ray Newton, Board Member, Arizona Town Hall

A veteran newspaperman, magazine and television reporter-editor, Newton also earned stripes at several universities, including Northern Arizona University, as a professor and administrator emeritus. Active throughout his adult years in several local, regional and national think-tank organizations, he’s a vocal advocate for giving back to communities where we live.

Why did you personally feel a desire to get involved with AZTH?

Arizona Town Hall is the only statewide nonpolitical organization that provides the public with an opportunity to examine critical issues facing Arizona citizens in a nonconfrontational environment.

What do you see as the most important issue(s) AZTH is addressing in the region?

I think AZTH is doing the state a favor by conducting objective research about three current issues: 1. The crisis in funding education at all levels — Pre-K through university. 2. The social, financial and especially medical consequences that result from having one of the most rapidly aging populations in the United States. 3. The possible effects of unsustainable growth, which jeopardize our environment, in areas such as water, land, and exploitation of irreplaceable resources.

What work are you doing to address these issues?

I try to be actively and aggressively involved in activities and projects that create genuine public awareness.

What can the community do to support you and AZTH in your efforts?

I believe all citizens — irrespective of gender, age, income, education, cultural background and political persuasion — should focus their support upon what is going to benefit and improve Arizona for future generations. AZTH provides that opportunity in a civil, thoughtful and constructive environment.

If you could snap your fingers and have three key changes made to better our community, what would you choose?

I would endorse more genuine parental involvement in influencing decisions that impact education. Legislators need to listen to students, parents and educators, not pander to political lobbyists. I would urge objective, analytical assessments — both short- and long-range — of development proposals that are based more on economic gain for a privileged few rather than what is beneficial for society as a whole. I would disabuse the notion that high school students need to enroll only in college or university programs to be socially, culturally and financially successful. Rather, teenagers need to identify and then cultivate those talents and skills that will give them personal and professional satisfaction. Degrees don’t define distinction.