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Why wasn’t I consulted? (a working theory)

Posted on 26 May 2015

Last night, about a dozen people took two-and-half hours to tell city council they are adamantly opposed to an RV sales lot being built on the site of a former golf course. They were worried about traffic, light, and the overall character of the neighbourhood being ruined. They were also upset that they hadn’t been consulted on this earlier.

Councillour Garth Frizzell asked staff what sort of consultation had actually taken place.

“There are several points in the process where there’s consultation sought from the neighborhood,” replied Walter Babicz, general manager of administrative services. They were:

  1. It was on the agenda at the February 2 council meeting
  2. There were ads in the Prince George Citizen
  3.  Nearby properties got a letter a hearing notice about the proposed change
  4. A sign went up on the property

And yet person after person after person said they hadn’t heard about this proposed change until the last minute.

NOW. Let me be clear: I am not saying city staff didn’t do their job (in fact, it sounds like they went beyond what was required). I am also not 100% positive that what I am about to say is true. This is just my working theory as to why there might be this disconnect where the city does all these consultations with citizens, and citizens say they weren’t consulted:

There’s a difference between consultation and engagement.

Here’s a look at some of the steps that were taken to consult people. Here’s one of the ads in the Citizen:

zoning bylaw

 

 

 

Here’s the letter that was sent out:

lot

 

 

I’m not positive what the sign looked like, but here’s an example of your average bylaw change notification sign (here’s one for a liquor store):

CF5unEUWEAAFBvG

 

 

Upon reading these things you can, I think, parse what’s going on. But the question worth asking is whether they want to be read. How much effort is being made in attracting attention as people sort through their mailboxes, scan the newspaper, and drive to work? Do these jump out, or do they fade into the background?

I write for a living, and I can tell you it isn’t always easy to stick to plain language. I sympathize with the challenge it presents. But I can also tell you that if I’m wanting to get someone’s attention I don’t lead with words like “amendment”, “facilitate” and bylaw codes. Those are the things that make people’s eyes glaze over and ears turn off.

I’ve cited before and I’ll cite again Dave Meslin’s TedX talk “The Antidote to Apathy,” about precisely this topic. Meslin says expecting people to get engaged in civic politics by posting notifications like these is akin to Nike trying sell shoes with ads like this:

meslin shoes

He proposes a better public notification from city planning departments would look something like this:

newcityoftoronto

This new sign clearly illustrates what’s happening, and what you can do to voice your opinion.

“But wait!” I hear you say. “People did show up! The process works!”

Well, yes, although a number of residents said they didn’t know about the process at all until they saw this sign (photo by Brent Braaten):

stop bylaw

Compare that sign to the ads posted by the city. There’s a clear call to action (stop bylaw-8642).  There is a map that actually shows the geography of the place, rather than abstract squares with lot numbers on them. There is a picture of RVs, indicating what is being proposed visually, not just in form of small text. There are clear labels pointing to how the traffic patterns would be affected. Somebody is making an effort to get people to understand what is going on here.

Was the proposal a good idea? I’m not commenting on that. I’m simply suggesting that if the city of Prince George would like to avoid future meetings where staff tells them the community was consulted and then the community tells them they weren’t, they may want to look into why that gap exists.

Further viewing: Dave Meslin – The antidote to apathy

Filed under: cities, Prince George

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