Penticton’s new engagement consultant got an earful when she went out to the public for the first time last week.
“A common sentiment is that they do not believe that council and staff listens to or acts on their feedback and as a result, they have very low trust for the current council and some staff members,” JoAnne Kleb said, delivering her first report to city council.
Kleb said she was focusing on raising awareness of the condition of city infrastructure and the need for investment. But she also wanted to take the opportunity to get to know what was on the minds of citizens.
“I wanted to encourage dialogue,” she said, noting she started with three public drop-in sessions at high-traffic locations.
Those drew about 120 citizens, and Kleb said she communicated with about another 160 through various means, like visiting Cowork Penticton and schools.
“I am confident that awareness of the condition of our infrastructure and the need for investment is quite good and the stage is set for the next phase where people can get more involved,” said Kleb. “As I hoped, these early activities also provide me with considerable insight into issues within the community.”
Many of the people attending the drop-in sessions, she said, were members of the Save Skaha Park Society or Citizens First.
“They rallied their members to express their outrage over the Skaha Park situation and the pattern of what they describe as bad decisions and backroom dealings,” Kleb told the assembled councillors and city staff.
Coun. Judy Sentes had concerns about the engagement process, suggesting it had been “sabotaged” by opponents of the Skaha Lake Park commercial lease.
“Your time … was being dominated by a negativity that has already been expressed,” Sentes said, speaking to Kleb. “I am cognizant that there is a very committed, dedicated group of people but I think they must not lose sight of respect or appreciation that there are other comments that are trying to come forward.”
Kleb read a laundry list of issues brought to her along with the Skaha Park situation, including the failed hockey dormitory, benefits for council, cost overruns at the SOEC, investments in downtown revitalization and waterfront beautification along with other concerns.
Several of the issues Kleb listed stem from decisions by previous councils but she said people were connecting them with current problems.
“The citizens I spoke with believe that these situations are a big part of the reason why there is no money to fund infrastructure,” said Kleb. “They also expressed concern that increasing revenue by charging for parking and reducing costs by eliminating polling stations are not the right way to solve the problems and the pattern of bad decisions may continue.”
Kleb said she gathered a lot of information, along with questions that people were asking before wanting to comment on the infrastructure deficit, like whether or not the SOEC is well-used and achieving its goals, or whether Penticton needs four sheets of ice.
“It will be important to have answers to these questions before we proceed with our next phase of work,” said Kleb.
Kleb said progress is being made on communication with the community about the infrastructure challenge, but said there are unanswered questions that need to be addressed in order to rebuild trust with the community.
“I am very concerned about our ability to have conversations about the infrastructure needs and other upcoming initiatives with the level of outrage we are currently seeing with a significant, meaningful portion of the community,” said Kleb. “This is a situation that has been building over months, if not years, and it is going to take time to repair and it is going to happen one decision and one conversation at a time.”
Councillors Tarik Sayeed and Helena Konanz both said they wanted to be more involved in engaging with the public.
“We say we are accessible, but a lot of people don’t feel like we really are,” said Konanz, hoping to arrange regular sessions where the public can interact with councillors face to face.
Jakubeit suggested that 550 people out of a total population of 34,000 wasn’t representative, but did support better engagement.
“That is one of the next steps, is making some time or creating an environment where you can have some frank discussions and get to some suggestions,” he said.
Kleb said there is a series of open houses being planned for the end of November to further engage with the community over the infrastructure deficit.
“There is one issue that is not just polarizing the community but taking all the focus. They want to deal with the issue first before they talk about other things, or vent about it first,” said Jakubeit. “That is a barrier we are trying to overcome.”