A frequent attendee of Upper Arlington City Council meetings and community events, Diane Sturges likes to stay informed and participate in the democratic process.

But in recent years, particularly at council meetings, she said, she became increasingly alarmed by interactions between residents on different sides of local issues, as well as with city officials conducting municipal business and making legislative decisions.

So in an effort to bring people together to more calmly discuss these issues, and to foster more respect and understanding, she began organizing "Lemonade & Cookies" events at the Upper Arlington Municipal Services Center, 3600 Tremont Road, prior to council's regular meetings.

The events are held once a month, with the next slated for 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27.

In addition to Sturges, they're typically attended by Upper Arlington's seven City Council members as well as representatives of various community groups that sponsor each event.

And Sturges is hopeful an increasing number of residents will take time to stop by.

"I call them 'Lemonade & Cookies' and everybody says, 'What's that?' " Sturges said. "It immediately starts a discussion.

"When you have lemonade and cookies with someone, you're less likely to throw a pie in someone's face."

The events are designed to provide a casual environment for meet-and-greets and discussions, Sturges said. Conversations aren't policed and many are held one-on-one as attendees mingle throughout the 30 minutes before council meetings.

But Sturges said they're meant to be civil events in which people can speak with and bring ideas to council members and other city officials and staff members in a "non-threatening," non-confrontational manner.

"They can possibly debate issues, but it's not like, 'I win, you lose,' " she said. "It's about working together in a positive way instead of such a tribal way -- and not calling each other names."

Sturges said she was inspired to create the Lemonade & Cookies events primarily due to rifts that were popping up in the community. The events also were established in the wake a historic recall election in August 2016 that saw four Upper Arlington City Council members stave off an attempt to have them removed from office by a citywide vote.

She also was heartened by similar civility "movements" in the community spearheaded by the Upper Arlington Community Foundation and by citizens groups such as EQUAL, which was formed to chip away at racial, political and other divides in the community by promoting a message that "Together We Are Better."

Representatives of EQUAL sponsored a past Lemonade & Cookies event.

The Upper Arlington Public Library will sponsor the Aug. 27 Lemonade & Cookies. In addition to purchasing refreshments, library representatives will be on hand to share information about the library and its involvement in Revive Civility Ohio.

Library community-engagement specialist Jennifer Faure said Revive Civility Ohio is an initiative of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

She said national surveys by the American Psychological Association and the Weber Shandwick annual Civility in America Survey have indicated that citizens are identifying the current political climate, lack of civility and us-or-them politics as one of the top five sources of stress among Americans.

"The numbers that report civility as a problem are pretty uniform across all age demographics," Faure said. "So the NICD started the Revive Civility initiative and they're particularly targeting four states: Ohio, Maine, Iowa and Arizona.

"We were approached because libraries are neutral places at the center of communities and are nonpartisan by design. We will be doing some programming related to civility here at the library but we are also working with the city and some other organizations to promote the Revive Civility initiative, which encourages people to take the civility pledge, a seven-day civility challenge (and) engage in community conversations. We are hoping to create more opportunities for community conversations."

Sturges acknowledged that, oftentimes, people who come to council meetings are angry or frustrated by an action or inaction that's affecting them.

Although she empathizes with those residents, she also believes council leaders and city staff members are "doing the best they can."

"We need to learn from one another," Sturges said. "That's the only way we grow.

"(Lemonade & Cookies) is an opportunity to meet with council representatives and other city employees in a non-threatening way. Everyone is invited, it's open and there's no agenda."

Upper Arlington City Councilwoman Sue Ralph said each council member has made it a point to attend the Lemonade & Cookies events because it's a way for them to address their "No. 1 priority," which is listening to and collaborating with residents.

"We are really grateful to Diane for putting this together," Ralph said. "This council believes sharing ideas and suggestions and working together moves the city forward."

Ralph said the events, along with providing videostreaming of council meetings and an emphasis on returning residents' calls and emails, have helped open lines of communication between the city and residents and chipped away at perceptions that city officials aren't accessible or receptive to public input.

"We want to listen and we want to hear what people have to say," Ralph said. "I think it's very helpful.

"At each one of these events, I have met new people. I have found it to be really meaningful and we want it to continue."

Sturges plans to continue to organize Lemonade & Cookies for as long as people are willing to show up.

"From my perspective, it's already been successful because it's gotten more conversation and it's gotten more people to kind of coalesce around this idea of being civil," Sturges said. "It's gotten more people behind this idea that we can treat each other better."

Information about future Lemonade & Cookies events can be found at upperarlingtonoh.gov.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate