Civic engagement crucial for council (column)
London Community News
Next week the City of London launches perhaps its most extensive and imaginative public engagement exercise ever. ReThink London is described as a year-long “community conversation” to design a new master plan for the next 20 years.
Also next week, city council will debate a recommendation for a serious examination of how to improve the way it conveys important information to its citizens in the wake of sharp criticism about the way notice to restrict public decorum at council meetings was handled.
Citizen engagement — how the political and administrative processes at City Hall interact with the 360,000 residents of the Forest City — has sparked acrimonious discussion over the past several years, revealing a significant divide.
City council has approved various policies about notice periods and methods that comply with requirements of the Ontario Municipal Act. But neither the policies nor the act seem to take into account changes in the way citizens expect to receive information.
For example, take a meeting held last week at which a city council committee debated a new procedure bylaw for council meetings. It included a section that would ban public expression in the form of applause, cheering, banners, signs and T-shirts at City Hall meetings.
Notice of this drastic change was provided in exactly the way council policies stipulate. Date and time of the meeting was included in the Living in the City advertisement in the Saturday Free Press just before the committee meeting, and details of the proposed changes were listed on the city’s website.
Here’s the problem: Only around a quarter of the households in London subscribe to the Saturday Free Press. (Audited circulation numbers from 2011 for Saturday’s circulation sat at 77,670, including e-editions and third party sponsorship.) And it’s very difficult to find information on the city’s website. So that left a lot of people in the dark.
In this case, fortunately, other media outlets provided advance coverage and the word got out. The many citizens who turned out were almost unanimously opposed to the proposed changes — the committee has now recommended against them — and they weren’t very happy about the notice either.
“This issue (of decorum) is valid,” said David Dimitrie of the Kipps Lane Community Association, “but the way it was proposed was terrible.”
That’s not a complaint City Hall hasn’t heard before. Last year, in fact, a citizen task force examined how notice is provided now versus how the public expects it. Where City Hall uses its website, the postal service, neighbourhood signs and the local broadsheet newspaper, the task force recommended also employing email, Facebook, Twitter, grocery store notice boards, community newspapers like this one, ethnic newspapers, door hangers and door-to-door canvassing.
ReThink London hasn’t committed to trying them all, but it is attempting to touch residents in different ways to get their attention — and participation.
For the free kickoff next Thursday at the London Convention Centre, Peter Mansbridge, anchor of the CBC-TV national newscast, is the keynote speaker. What does he know about city planning? Perhaps not much, concedes Gregg Barrett, the city’s manager of planning and research, “but he can talk about the importance of cities and the importance of being involved.”
ReThink therefore suggests a willingness to try innovative ways of engagement. Now the city needs to truly close the engagement loop with better ways of informing the public.
Philip McLeod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.