First Nestle meeting was rocky

Tony D'Souza
Last week's first 'public meeting' with Nestle drew a large crowd at McCloud High School.

The first Nestle sponsored “public meeting” held in the McCloud High School gym last Wednesday evening quickly devolved into antagonism, with McCloud community members openly ridiculing the evening’s moderator.

The meeting, put on by Nestle and facilitated by Kearns & West, a California public relations company hired by Nestle to mediate and negotiate dialogue within the McCloud community about the contentious proposed bottling plant, saw a turnout of close to 150 people, many of whom were hoping the forum would live up to its billing as a chance for both sides of the issue to meet and work toward “mutual goals.”

But a weak effort at publicizing the meeting by Kearns & West in the days and weeks leading up to the event set the stage for those already distrustful of Nestle to come to the high school on the defensive.

Though Kearns & West, which bills itself as “a neutral third party,” had ample time to disseminate information about the meeting to the McCloud community, the company clearly failed on this front. A newspaper announcement the day of the event, coupled with Kearns & West’s last minute distribution of a letter inviting community members to the meeting, saw a number of the principle opposition voices miss the meeting altogether.

Added to this was a lack of sufficient programs for the large turnout, poor acoustics in the gymnasium, and an equally poor presentation by Kearns & West’s facilitator Bill Pistor. Charged with moderating a meeting whose goals never became clear, Pistor spent nearly 20 minutes apologizing for the late publicity of the event, followed by another half an hour rehashing the familiar history of the Nestle issue. Pistor spoke, often wholly inaudibly, while seated beside his projector until frustrated members of the audience called on him to stand and speak clearly into the microphone. His attempt to describe Kearns & West’s effort to gather information from a cross-section of the McCloud community was lost when audience members began to badger him about his ineffectual presentation style.

As Pistor again explained to the agitated audience that Kearns & West, though contracted by Nestle, was not a Nestle representative, Claudia Ellis of McCloud’s Brown Dog Gallery said from the back of the audience, “Your voice is so monotone. We can’t understand what you are saying. Nestle is one of the biggest conglomerates in the world. If this is the best that Nestle can do, this is awful.”

She was joined by others who repeatedly told Pistor to speak into the microphone, and a woman who shouted, “Please don’t sit.”

Pistor then relinquished command of the meeting to take comments from the audience, during which time 80% of the audience members listing their litany of reasons for their distrust and dislike of Nestle, and 20% defended the  multinational.

“I’m not forcing this on you,” Pistor told the increasingly upset audience, and a woman responded by saying, “This meeting is a complete waste.” Another added, “We are rural, but we are not simple. I want this stated for the record. This forum is a set-up. Nestle is trying to bore us to death so we don’t come back to any more meetings. I encourage all of you to come back and come back and come back. I’ve never seen a meeting held like this.”

With Dave Palais, Nestle’s project manager, and his support team looking on, at one point Pistor put a list of towns in conflict with Nestle on the screen before the audience, including Crystal Springs, Florida, and Fryeburg, Maine. Audience comments then turned to the documentary film “Flow,” parts of which detail Nestle’s litigation against a town in Michigan that has gone on for years.

Pistor often tried to shield himself from the audience’s barbs with off-the-cuff humor about his presentation style, which garnered little to no audience sympathy. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” he pointedly said.

As mounting numbers of community members derided the meeting and asked that McCloud be ‘given time to breath’ before being confronted again with the issue, Pistor acknowledged that in his 66 face-to-face and phone interviews with community members, “I have often heard that as well.”

Asked at one point by an audience member to call for a showing of hands of who would like to see Nestle build a bottling plant in McCloud and who wouldn’t, Pistor said, “We’re not a voting body.” “Why not?” came the immediate response. Pistor then said, “Okay, let’s do a showing of hands,” before immediately backtracking by saying, “We’re not going to do that.”

As the meeting dragged on, every audience comment in defense of Pistor such as, “He’s not on Nestle’s side, he’s not on your side. He’s on all of our sides,” was met with a response such as, “This gentleman has been retained by Nestle. This is a subtle psychological process to soften up the community.”

By the end of the two hour meeting, many points about the Nestle issue and McCloud’s difficult economic future were rehashed.

Asked for comment after the meeting, Donna Boyd, who works under contract for California Trout, said, “I think there was a huge difference between what the community thought they were coming for tonight and what the consultancy firm thought they were doing tonight… If I was Nestle, I wouldn’t be paying the whole bill... Kearns & West is an experienced facilitation firm, but I think they completely misunderstood the level of anger that the community has and the need for people in the community to voice their feelings.”

Asked how he thought the meeting went, Palais said, “There were a few logistical issues with the auditorium, but it gave us a start in our process for getting people to express their opinions… I’m glad we had a turnout and that we had people expressing their opinions. I’m very pleased with the turnout.”

Asked about an unpublicized Nestle-sponsored dinner held on Columbus Day at the McCloud Golf Resort, Palais said, “I had a dinner for the people who have been very supportive of me personally in the project over the past five years. There was no discussion of strategy, no talking about the future. It was just ‘Thank you for your support’… There were about 45 people there.” According to both Palais and members of the McCloud Community Service District board, no board members attended the dinner.