“We are living at a time when people are increasingly cynical.”
“You need to bulletproof your process.”
That’s just some of the advice given to Mayor Naheed Nenshi and councillors during a strategic meeting of city council on Monday.
It came from Wendy Green Lowe, a public engagement specialist and consultant with International Association for Public Participation.
And it’s timely and coincidental advice – it comes less than a week after an open house on the southwest bus rapid transit (BRT) proposal turned into a raucous shouting match.
Nenshi said city staff were shouted at and threatened. As a result, the mayor decided the city would not hold any more open houses on the project, saying instead the public could provide feedback online. Members in an advocacy group deny any wrongdoing.
Lowe told council members people feel left out because they come later in the decision-making process.
“That’s where the frustration comes in,” agreed Shane Keating, councillor for Ward 12.
“We have to make sure that the public understands what decisions are to be made, at what time, and then be authentic on how we’re dealing with that input,” Keating added.
Ward 4 Councillor Sean Chu said while he believes open houses are “very important”, the city can do a better job of keeping people properly informed.
“(We need to) communicate to people clearly that this is already a done deal.. and these are just information sessions instead of consultation,” Chu said.
“When you say ‘open house’, in peoples’ minds it’s consultation…the wording is very important,” he added.
Nenshi said the city already has a “very good engagement process that works” but he acknowledged when it goes bad, “it goes bad.”
“What I’m really interested in is understanding: how do we prevent it from going bad?” the mayor said.
Nenshi said the BRT open house was disrupted by Ready to Engage!, a group he claimed is trying to influence the 2017 municipal election.
He said it was “very difficult” for the vast majority of people there who just want to ask their questions or “give us really good ideas.”
But a spokesman for the group, Rick Donkers, said Monday the process of public engagement has been inherently dishonest.
“People went in there thinking they could affect the process when in fact, they were told it’s a done deal,” said Donkers.
And he denied the group is trying to influence the next municipal election.
“This is not about civic politics in 2017,” said Donkers.
“This is about some people trying to raise legitimate concerns about how their public tax dollars are being spent on a public transit project, nothing more,” he insisted.
Lowe said the city has to be truthful, honest and transparent.
“Make sure people understand the decision process,” she said. “Learn from your mistakes.”