Fall 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW1

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Multiplying Partnerships


Arlen Etling
Rural Development Area Agent
Cottonwood, Arizona

Three supervisors govern Yavapai County, Arizona, which is slightly smaller than Massachusetts. Budget and time limitations make frequent visits to each community impossible. The supervisors often feel fragmented in trying to stay in touch with their constituents, while residents in remote communities sometimes feel their needs aren't being adequately addressed.

The supervisor for District III was especially harried. He had 27 unincorporated communities, 80% of Yavapai County's unincorporated population, in his district. He asked the rural development (RD) area agent for help, and from their meeting the idea of a "nucleus group"was born.

Basically, the nucleus group is a forum to bring together county officials and representatives of unincorporated areas to discuss specific problems and answer local questions. The purposes of the group are to: (1) improve communication between county government and local communities, (2) identify the more critical or widespread problems, and (3) provide better representation for the unincorporated communities.

To initiate the group, the supervisor sent a letter to key organizations and leaders in unincorporated communities explaining the nucleus group idea. News releases also helped spread the idea, which was enthusiastically received. At an organizational meeting, the representatives agreed that they should develop the agenda, set the time and place of meetings, and have control of the way sessions are conducted. The RD agent chairs each meeting to make sure the discussion is positive, there are no political speeches, and everyone gets a chance to talk. These are the meeting ground rules.

Before each meeting, the RD agent sends a reminder letter to each representative and asks for agenda items. Responses are passed along to the supervisor who arranges for appropriate county officials to attend and respond to the concerns.

The nucleus group has met quarterly for six years under three different supervisors. More than 200 specific problems have been resolved. In atypical year, representatives traveled 7,200 miles to the meetings, saving the supervisor $1,400 in travel expenses and 400 hours in individual contacts. The representatives meet with local property owner associations to inform other residents and get their opinions.

In a formal evaluation, representatives were unanimous in their support for the nucleus group. They stated that the nucleus group had improved communications and had given them a better understanding of county government. One person replied, "This is the best meeting of its kind that I have attended."

The greatest challenge is keeping the meetings from turning into gripe sessions or personal platforms for politicians. The RD agent prevents this by providing a written agenda with ground rules printed on it. Then, he enforces those rules diplomatically, but firmly.

A side effect of the nucleus group has been improved communication among people in unincorporated communities. Representatives receive the mailing list of participants. Each community, then, is a resource for others represented in the nucleus group. In this way, partnerships are multiplied.