April 25, 2001 | By: Laura Skillman

Workshops coordinated by the Webster County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service are helping elected officials and board members acquire the skills needed to improve coordination between themselves and to gain public input on issues.

The latest round of workshops have been under way since last year, but public policy efforts have a much longer history in the county. In 1996, the Extension service held its first workshop with a focus on helping communities deal with public conflict.

The current project provides flexible workshops that incorporate the needs and interests of the people involved, said Phil Gillespie, recently retired Webster County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.

Initially, the idea was for the workshop members to identify an issue, determine a plan to involve the public in the issue and to critique what transpired, he said. But what has happened, is the group felt it first needed to learn to use facilitation skills that could be helpful with any issue. For example, one of the monthly workshops was on learning to deal with difficult people.

Gillespie said the idea of bringing officials and public board members together from across the county stems from information gleaned during a community assessment for a certified community partnership with the Economic Development Corp. in the 1990s.

The county contains six incorporated cities plus a county government and in the past there was not always a lot of cooperative work between them, Gillespie said.

Better cooperation was also consistently stated as a need while the county's Extension council was meeting with community members in preparing its plan of work.

Webster County Judge-Executive Jim Townsend said the meetings over the years have been worth the effort to attend and he only wished more people would do so.

"I've gotten a better understanding of how people think," he said. "I've gained a little better ability to listen than to talk. I've always tried to get the full scope of ideas and this has helped me to do that even more."

Jane Warren, a Sebree city council member, has been involved in public policy workshops facilitated by the Extension office since the beginning.

Warren said the communities in Webster County have not had a unified front in the past but the meetings have helped to provide a greater understanding for everyone. Some issues that have affected the county needed broad based input, she says, and the workshops have also helped them learn how to gain greater public input.

"We've seen if we can work together, what's good for one end of the county is good for the other end," she said.

Townsend agreed that since the workshops began, people are working together more than in the past.

The workshops have been a useful tool in helping Warren develop skills that allow her to see others' perspectives on issues and to deal with sometimes difficult people, she said.

Warren and Townsend praised Gillespie and the Extension service for its educational efforts.

"It is amazing to me what the Extension service has been able to do," she said.

Gillespie has helped facilitate and teach parts of the workshops along with Ronald Hustedde, UK Extension public policy/rural development specialist. Participants who have already been trained on a specific topic also act as instructors.

Both Gillespie and Hustedde attended a national workshop in 1994 on mediating environmental conflicts which dealt mostly with dealing with public conflict, Gillespie said. He has attended additional workshops on public input as well.

Gillespie said he could not say for certain that the workshops have had a direct impact but since identifying the need for better collaboration between governing bodies, the county has seen some successes. Mayors in the county now meet once a month and the area fire departments have formed an association and meet regularly. The fire departments now issue one set of priorities for materials for all departments.


Phil Gillespie, (270) 639-9011