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Civility stands at Woodbury tax meeting

About 35 people arrived last week at a tax meeting at Central Park organized by a Woodbury woman. Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker

Kelly DeBrine aimed to have a civil discussion on the issue of taxes.

She got that last week - for the most part.

Technicalities surrounding taxes took a back seat Tuesday, July 31, to more abstract questions probing attendees' support for public amenities and visions for quality of life. The idea, DeBrine said, was to strip away the rhetoric and vitriol that emerges when the word "tax" is uttered.

To that end, she said the meeting was a success.

"I think it was a great start to gathering diverse voices in our community who are interested in civil dialogue," DeBrine said of the meeting held at Central Park.

That didn't mean everyone at the meeting came away with a fresh vision surrounding taxes. As the meeting wound down, DeBrine fielded numerous complaints from attendees who said the meeting didn't deliver as billed.

Those included Joe Salmon, chairman of Republican Senate District 53. He said the conversation didn't necessarily have to be about tax collection.

"It's where it goes once the government gets it," he said.

DeBrine acknowledged the discontent in a follow-up email to attendees, remarking that some complained the discussion roamed off-topic.

"I think people are used to coming to meetings with an agenda and are often less ready to listen to each other's points of view ... which in a sense, proved the point that it is very difficult to get past buzz words related to public policy," the email states.

She said she hoped the roundtable discussions would illustrate the challenge in discussing community vision without colliding with funding sources.

"I think we did accomplish this in essence, but maybe not directly," DeBrine wrote to attendees.

During the meeting, about 35 people broke up into groups to discuss two questions DeBrine posed.

The first asked attendees to talk about a time they felt connected with a community amenity - a question that immediately drew criticism from an attendee who thought it was steering the conversation.

The second question asked attendees what they could do as local citizens to improve quality of life, which produced a quick response from Salmon.

"If you can find it in the Yellow Pages, the government doesn't need it," he said.

Both questions were discussed at length by attendees.

"I think the tenor was amazingly civil given the passionately opposing views that walked into the room that evening," DeBrine said.

After discussion ended, she thanked the group for undertaking the conversation.

"This stuff we did tonight is not easy work."

Attendees included Washington County Commissioners Bill Pulkrabek and Autumn Lehrke, as well as House District 53B DFL candidate Ann Marie Metzger.

Pulkrabek, who represents a portion of Woodbury, said he walked away satisfied.

"It's always good when you have people with differing viewpoints get together and find some common ground," he said.

Woodbury resident Phil Schliesman took his two sons to the meeting, hoping to expose them to a community discussion. He said he got that at the meeting.

"I thought it was great," he said.

Woodbury resident Dick Bernard also said he found the meeting worthwhile. He said it set the stage for future meetings.

"The only way you get a conversation started is to start a conversation," he said.

DeBrine said she would take part in future meetings.

"I hope that others in our community will be interested in working to heal the wounds of our uncivil discourse," she said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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