Last evening (October 17th 2017 if you are reading this later than today 🙂 ) was a good night for community in action. The Town Council gallery was full to overflowing; residents weighed in on a topic of interest; Council voted on that topic; and a majority of Councillors and residents left feeling democracy had been served. So that’s a good thing. Perhaps it didn’t matter that the focus of the discussion, and the impressive attendance, was not entirely consistent with the subject of the vote. These two “elements” were however, certainly connected. Therein lies the intent of the headline to this post.
Let me digress for a moment. I have been a recreation planning consultant since 1990. During those almost 30 years I have managed or been involved in 100’s of planning studies. My first one – as a municipal employee in the City of Burlington Ontario – was for a 10 year recreation, culture, and park master plan. Ultimately it made recommendations for multi-millions of dollars of parkland acquisition, facility development, facility decommissioning, staffing, service direction etc. The early public meetings for this massive study saw 4 or 5 residents (of a then population of over 150,000) come out to provide their thoughts on the future of this service. Early in the process I received a call from the local paper, a reporter who I knew well from other interviews. Sensing a level of “friendship” I responded perhaps too “off the cuff” (I was young…er) to his question as to why so few residents came out to these consultations by saying something to the effect that “I thought people tend to be apathetic when it comes to paying attention to broad policy discussions that aren’t tied to specific issues”. The front page headline in the next day’s Hamilton and Bay area paper was “City Staffer says Residents of Burlington Apathetic”. Oh dear – not a good start!
Over the years experience has shown me that, consultations related to the siting of a bricks and mortar facility – or – and this is the worst – consolidating by tearing down bricks and mortar buildings (even if it would result in a new building), the community comes out in force. This is the case whether in Alberta, Southern Ontario, Truro, or Wolfville. It seems universal that communities are galvanized around specifics – whether facilities or services – we saw this in Wolfville when the suggestion was made to look at moving the RCMP office, but generally pay much less attention to long term policy planning. And yet it is these long term plans that inform and direct the “bricks and mortar” decisions.
The discussions in Town over the last few weeks have been interesting to the planner in me. The issue was a policy one related to the ongoing development of our Municipal Planning Strategy. Had it stayed in the abstract my guess is that it would not have garnered as much attention. However, coincident to this policy discussion a possible – one could frame it as “real” implication of that policy had been earlier introduced to the community. This real bricks and mortar reality helped to focus the policy discussion.
I take two points from this, and my long-ago faux pas to a newspaper reporter: When creating policy we – whether staff, consultants, councils – can do a better job of giving examples of the tangible results of the policies we recommend or make. Unless you are a policy wonk it is hard to make the leap to the tangible implications in your world, sometimes until it is too late. This is not easy because most of the time these are just possibilities and it is hard to anticipate all the potential results of every policy.
The other take away is for the community – residents, hard as it might be to pay attention to all the chatter that goes on at the Council table and public consultations when you have your immediate life to pay attention, be aware that these policies do affect that life. Tell councillors what would make it easier for you to follow these discussions, speak to your councillors regularly – ask them to tell you what are the current big items they are addressing. The Town has begun to use Face Book Live to broadcast its Committee of the Whole and Council meetings. That should help. In short the message I want to leave you with is that these broad policy discussions matter – they ultimately do affect the bricks and mortar buildings, sidewalks, roads, streetlights, staffing levels, policing services etc., that are more easy to get our minds around.
As for our Arena (actually Acadia’s Arena) – No to my knowledge there are no plans for its demise – but did I get your attention?