In the wake of the Skaha Lake Park controversy, the City of Penticton is moving slowly to enhance their communication and consultation process with the public.
Last August, Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said communications with the public could have been better in advance of a decision-making process that led to two rallies, ongoing protest and a civil suit in B.C. Supreme Court.
“We should have been more diligent with providing, or demanding, a more robust engagement plan, maybe 60 days instead of 30,” said Jakubeit last August. “We are looking into strategies for public engagement and how that should roll out. What mediums can we use to engage a broad cross-section of the community.”
The public got a hint of that in late January, when Janis Magnuson of Sterling Five Consulting posted in some community Facebook groups that she had been hired by the city to “create a community engagement process that will allow residents more say and have more involvement in decisions that are made by City Council.”
Magnuson, whose profile lists her as having 40 years of experience in education, law, dispute resolution, mediation and community engagement, said in a post she was creating a Facebook group, Engage Penticton, but was having difficulty. That group is not publicly available. Jakubeit said Magnuson, a Naramata resident, was hired when she came to the city and offered her services, but that line of work was suspended when Magnuson went on medical leave.
“Her involvement with the process is in transition,” said Jakubeit, adding that the loss of the city’s communications officer, Simone Blais, also slowed the work.
“Her replacement, Tina Lee, just started this week. She will get formally introduced to the public at Monday’s council meeting,” said Jakubeit. “She has a fair bit of not just communications, but engagement experience and some ideas and strategies. I think that is going to continue the momentum we were going to create.”
Jakubeit was unconcerned with Magnuson’s difficulty working with Facebook, saying social media is only one element of engagement and she was hired to help develop a plan.
“Building the plan and executing the plan are two different tactics,” said Jakubeit.
The other side of this coin is the consultation work the city does on major projects, like the rebuild of the waterfront walkway they did a few years ago, and the downtown revitalization, which work began on today. In both cases, Jakubeit holds them up as examples of good long-term consultation with the community. In both cases, though, the designs met with opposition.
In the case of the walkway, two designs, developed through a public consultation process, met with immediate opposition, especially to replacing angle parking along Lakeshore with parallel parking. A Save Lakeshore Drive group sprang up, protesting that the initial round of public sessions wasn’t comprehensive enough and the public wasn’t in support of the parking changes. The city eventually came forward with the much simpler design that is in place now.
And though contractors have already begun work on Main Street revitalization, support for the changes don’t appear to be as strong as the city has presented. One business owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, said the consultation sessions seemed to be more about pitching the project than gathering input.
Jakubeit said the lack of response to a reverse petition process, where a store owner would have to register their opposition, showed most property owners in the area were in favour of the project as it was presented.
“There were a few that were against it, but the vast majority did not respond,” said Jakubeit. “That sort of speaks to why having a more robust engagement strategy is needed.”
Jakubeit said it is often difficult for city staff to find a balance between implementing new practices and trends and finding a happy medium with the residents who are comfortable with the way it is now and think it is good enough.
“We do have a culture of resisting change, it’s been good enough the way it is, leave it alone, making a fuss over things and then when it is installed saying ‘this is awesome, why did you wait so long to make this in the first place?’,” said Jakubeit, adding that the city needs to do a better job of communicating or getting more information out there.
“You want them to buy into whatever you are doing and feel a sense of pride that the city is going,” he said. “Part of that is engaging with them to understand what their ideas and concerns are. And also putting out more or better information, so they have a comfort level with what is happening.”
Jakubeit suggested there might be better ways to gather public input than the standard town halls or public hearings.
“The times we were in the market for various initiatives … was way more impactful. You got more of a robust dialog with people and probably a better representation of what people had concerns about,” he said.
The question that needs to be answered, according to Jakubeit, is how does the city generate community dialog and have residents feel that their ideas and concerns are acknowledged or at least potentially considered or investigated?
“Part of that engagement process is also putting out more information. How do we ensure there is enough information out there that it gives you and others around enough information to make an informed decision,” said Jakubeit. “I think that is where we have fallen in the past. We don’t use our website or social media enough to say here’s where we are with things.”
The mayor also said they need to give people better information to arm themselves with when talking about an ongoing decision.
“I think just as simple a thing as starting with our website,” said Jakubeit, adding that he has asked for updates. Up to last Friday, the pages dealing with the downtown revite had initial reports, but not the updates, changes or even the final design.
“Just simply putting more relevant and current information up on our website. It is probably going to be a big improvement,” said Jakubeit. “We need to do better. It sounds so simple but quite often it gets forgotten about.
“Maybe it is even linking some of the news stories,” said Jakubeit. “Whatever it is, it is creating more of an information portal and using that so people can make informed decisions.”