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Going to school on Nevada County

Richard Somerville

We started nine months ago making paper airplanes, and we finished on Friday by sitting in a circle, bouncing a soccer ball back and forth and describing how the Nevada County Community Leadership Institute has changed our lives.

In between, these 21 people – some newcomers, others whose families go back 150 years in the county – met key community leaders, soaked up details about land use and economic development, danced in circles like Twyla Tharp, toured institutions as diverse as a creative charter school and a cell block full of felons, polished leadership skills, and had more laughs than you could count.

The institute, sponsored by Sierra College, the Grass Valley/Nevada County Chamber of Commerce, the United Way, and the Nevada County Business Association, began in 1996 with the goal of helping leaders or future leaders in all walks of life learn about where we live, discover who our neighbors are, and understand the issues besetting the community.

No more than 25 applicants are selected each year, and they have to promise to attend an initial two-day retreat in September and then one Friday a month through June. The cost ($650, paid either by the applicants or their employer) is cheap at twice the price, and includes great lunches, too.

I first heard about NCCLI soon after arriving here in 2002, when I was asked to sit on a panel representing Nevada County media at the opening retreat for the last class. The names were a blur to me at that time, but I realized later that they included a county supervisor and a future supervisor candidate, a Grass Valley councilman, the Nevada City city manager, and leaders of nonprofit organizations and businesses.

I realized that if I hoped to acquire the depth of knowledge necessary to be the editor of this county’s daily newspaper, I had to jump into this program the next time it rolled around.

Who was in the Leadership Institute’s class of 2004? An eclectic bunch providing a wide range of perspectives: a fire chief, a banker, an attorney/yoga teacher, a civil engineer, heads of key county departments, an accountant, a policewoman, and many people heading businesses, nonprofits and professional organizations.


We ranged in age from the 20s to the early 60s. Some of us knew where we were going; others were in transition from one stage of their lives to another.

Despite that diversity, however, members of the group unfalteringly threw themselves into each problem-solving exercise or imaginative warmup drill concocted by our facilitator, nanny, and cheerleader, Yvonne Bartlett. (Yvonne, who is a community activist herself, is a leadership consultant.)

The group came to an early agreement about some rules, including treating all views with respect, turning off the cell phones, and keeping in the room everything that was said. I thought those promises would be hard to keep, but they weren’t. From the first day to the last, people felt free to talk about sometimes uncomfortable personal issues with the confidence that they were among friends.

The institute also would not be such a success without the scores of volunteers – many of them alumni of NCCLI – who gave hours or even days to share their expertise. There were few pivotal leaders in this community who were not involved – too many to mention, but not only are they greatly appreciated, they have inspired the latest class to do the same in coming years.

In short, I can’t think of a better investment of 10 days for anyone who believes that Nevada County is only as strong as its leaders. If you’d like to know more about how to apply for the institute’s next class, call 274-5301.


A hornet’s nest was stirred up Friday by a letter to the editor from Steve Enos, a member of the Grass Valley City Council and, incidentally, a graduate NCCLI’s class of 2003.

This was because I added Mr. Enos’ title to the signature of his letter, which took county Republicans to task for their role in the stinkfest over a meeting about alternative military service, which had to be relocated following angry calls to the county superintendent of schools office, where the meeting was to be held.

Seems the City of Grass Valley’s Code of Conduct prohibits council members from revealing their elected office when voicing personal views, such as calling the Republican Central Committee “mean-spirited bullies.”

Enos left me a voicemail asking that I assure Grass Valley City Administrator Gene Haroldsen that I was the culprit who added “City Council member” to the letter.

As it happened, Haroldsen attended the final NCCLI session Friday. He confirmed that, yes indeed, signing such a letter in such a way could result in sanctions, since it causes what he called “political problems” on the council. While Haroldsen conceded that such rules do not prevent The Union from identifying a letter-writer as a council member, he suggested that it might be better to do it in an editor’s note.

Since I certainly don’t want to be the engine of punishment for some public official (unless it involves something of a criminal nature), that’s what I’ll do in the future. But I’m still trying to figure out why the problem arises not because of the opinion itself, but because of the identification of someone as a city councilman (an ostensibly nonpartisan post) when most everyone knows he is a councilman anyway.

I guess I didn’t learn everything about county politics at the leadership institute …


Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays.


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