How two of desal’s most vocal figures came to understand—and respect—one another despite their differences
In recent years, plans for a controversial seawater desalination plant in Santa Cruz landed retired electrician and environmental activist Rick Longinotti and former mayor and councilman Mike Rotkin on opposite sides of the aisle. Both became leading voices for their respective sides—Longinotti as the founder of opposition group Desal Alternatives, and Rotkin as a once-desal opponent-turned-supporter from years of looking at the issue. The men didn’t know each other well before the desal episode—in Rotkin’s words, their “first real connection was on different sides of this important local issue.” Yet, despite their roles in one of Santa Cruz’s most divisive and heated episodes, they say they not only managed to communicate well, but also grew to enjoy it.
They honed their communication style with one another over the course of several local debates, as well as private meetings they had, and solidified it by appearing with a conflict resolution mediator on KUSP in June. The pair will present “Dialogue Across Differences” at a Sunday, Sept. 29 Conflict Improvisation event hosted by nonprofit Nonviolent Communication Santa Cruz, of which Longinotti is board member. Following Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant and City Manager Martin Bernal’s recent recommendation that the city put the brakes on the desal plan, and in light of the city’s upcoming look at a new Water Conservation Master Plan in October, the fire has dwindled somewhat in the desal debate, giving these two players time to reflect.
And that is how desal’s biggest critic and one of its staunchest champions wound up sitting on a couch at Good Times’ headquarters, talking about why it’s important to try and understand people on the other side of an issue.
GT: In light of your contrary stances on this issue, how did you two arrive at this sort of collaborative relationship?
MR: Rick works as a therapist, and my politics have always tried to be inclusive. On both sides, we’re two people who see politics not as war but as an opportunity for resolving differences and questions.
RL: After our last dialogue, at KUSP, Mike said to me, ‘I do a lot of debating, [and] it’s not always pleasant. But I always enjoy getting together to talk with you.’ That meant a lot to me. It meant that in spite of our differences, we haven’t landed at that place that I see so pervasive, where you look at someone [on the other side] as “one of them.” Rather, we got to understand each other better through this process.
Mike, based on your experience in city office, why is effective communication important?
MR: Although you can’t resolve every issue with mediation—there are sometimes fixed interests that just can’t be resolved—the question of how you handle differences is something I’ve been interested in a long time. In the progressive community, for example, if you can communicate with each other even though you disagree on a particular issue, you still have a progressive community that has the power to be able to push broadly for change. [What] I see more often than not is that people get so divided over whatever the single issue is that we weaken our entire ability to take on issues in a way that works.
Rick, considering your background in nonviolent communication, did you set out intending to stick to this method when you became prominent in the desal debate?
RL: I knew myself to be someone who really needed nonviolent communication. I get self righteous about things that I believe in, and I get moralistic. And those are exactly the qualities I am trying to overcome. With an issue I feel strongly about, my thought in writing a letter to the editor, for example, was that you really have to rev up people’s passions and to rev up moral indignation, moral outrage. That was my old self. I’ve tried very much to reform that approach because that creates the polarization that I know exists in Santa Cruz, but I didn’t ever feel it so acutely as when I got involved in this. So people like me need to look at our moralistic upbringing and realize we are all in this together. Mike and I share common values; we differ on a strategy. That’s where our differences are, so let’s not think of the other person with daggers in our eyes.
What do you have to overcome in order to communicate effectively with someone you disagree with?
MR: Maybe the single most critical one is that, while I don’t think you can give up judgment—you still have to make judgments on if this action makes sense, or if this one doesn’t—you must [work on] not attaching the judgment to the person but to their ideas or actions.
RL: One of the things that nonviolent communication advocates is that you look at what your needs are. My first reaction is that I get angry. For example, I saw an editorial in the newspaper [recently] written by a board member of Soquel Creek [Water District] in which he represented that the opposition to desal was coming from a desire to constrain growth. I know that’s not true of me, so I got irritated. My need was to be understood. If could really focus on that need—the need to be understood—that changes my reaction.
The nature of the desal conversation was generally harsh and unproductive. How did your approach fit into that?
MR: I think there were people on both sides who talk about the people they differ with on the issue as stupid, crazy, ill-intended, [or] all three. And it’s a very different kind of approach.
RL: There has been this tribalization, we can call it, but along with that is a reticence to dialogue at all. I’ve tried to have meetings with people and been unsuccessful. That reluctance comes from—this is my imagining—that they think ‘there’s no point talking to Rick because his mind is made up.’ But we can at least try. I think the fact that Mike and I have talked has shown that. [For example], I pulled a leaflet Desal Alternatives was using on the basis that Mike thought the information was misleading about water quality issues.
MR: It seems important that the more heated the issue, the more critically important the parties think the issue is, the more you need to have this sort of [nonviolent communication] approach to it.
Throughout the desal debate, both sides, and even you two, specifically, have disagreed on facts. What happens to finding common ground, or at least understanding one another, when basic premises of the issue aren’t agreed upon?
MR: To me, it’s nice if you can reach common ground—that’s a goal, but it’s not the only reason to do it. And I don’t see us reaching common ground on this issue until sometime in the future, when maybe some new facts would make it possible to reach common ground. But the idea is that at least you begin working on these things. When I find that we can’t agree on some fact, I either figure I need to try to find another way to make that fact clearer, or I realize that if I want to get somewhere on this issue, maybe this isn’t the fact to push, maybe I should look for some other fact that maybe we can agree on. It’s helpful to think strategically.
RL: As a result of the KUSP talk and others, we got pretty clear ideas about where we disagree on matters of fact, such as the potential for getting water back from Soquel Creek for Santa Cruz [in the event of a water transfer], or what the potential is for accomplishing the climate change goals we have as a city. But at some point when you go, ‘Alright this is as far as we’ll get now,’ there are still areas of agreement.
With some of those points of disagreement, did it come down to differing expectations of what people are capable of?
RL: Some of it was more physical, technical issues—like amounts Soquel Creek could give back. Some, like conservation, was a great example of what you expect people to do. On that, maybe it’s differing levels of optimism, but, even there, there is room for agreement. For example, [agreement to] implement this new Water Conservation Master Plan the city is developing, to do that before we make any other decisions about large-scale water projects.
Broadly speaking, did you feel there were any lapses in communication over the course of the desal discussion?
MR: The city was not effective at all about communicating the nature of the problem we are confronting. It’s not that the city did this overnight or rushed to judgment about it, but all of the communications with the public have been that ‘we have a solution to our water problem, and it’s desal, here’s why it won’t destroy things,’ but I don’t think the vast majority of people in this town believe we have a water problem. If I believed that I wouldn’t support desal either. [This is why] I think it’s good that the city is backing up [on desal] and doing the conservation plan. It’s a wise decision considering the wall we went up against of people who don’t like desal but don’t understand the problem. My target for the next period is to persuade people that we have an urgent problem here. Not that desal needs to be done, but that we don’t have forever to figure it out—that we may have a serious drought we will pay for. I want people to understand those facts and that information, and then the conversation will be if it’s not desal, let’s get working on what it’s going to be.
Rick, what are your thoughts looking back on how Desal Alternatives communicated with the public?
RL: For me, the thing I don’t feel I really explained that much in public is that I think our society is heading for a cliff, and that we need to do a lot of things, but one would be to examine very closely any new technology that comes along before we decide to use it. To think about if that’s really where we want to go. Desal is not, to me, just another option that’s benign. As insignificant as desal is in terms of household energy use, the fact is that it sets us forth on a path of energy intensive ways to provide us with water.
Why do the event?
RL: The [NVC’s] Transformative Communication group has been looking for a way to make this sort of communication relevant in terms of not just families and the workplace but also in the larger society, so this is a great way to do that.
MR: I’ve perceived that, in general, within the progressive community there is a tendency to go at one another’s throats rather than fix problems. Anybody who is taking an issue on should think about how to communicate about it in ways that don’t destroy our community. That’s why I was interested in participating.
Are there other problems in Santa Cruz that you think would benefit from nonviolent communication?
MR: The issue of violence and public safety that’s being debated hugely right now is another example where people have a tendency to quickly take [the side of] one extreme. There’s a lot of room for nonviolent communication on that issue as the community goes through this process.
Conflict Improv takes place 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Quaker Meeting House Main Hall, 225 Rooney St., Santa Cruz. Free admission. In addition to Rotkin and Longinotti’s presentation, Nonviolent Santa Cruz teachers will engage in conflict role plays based on audience suggestions.