This week, council attended the UBCM (Union of B.C. Municipalities) conference in Vancouver.
It was an opportunity to meet the new government and press issues important to Penticton. Our focus was on social issues around housing, mental health, addictions, and public safety. I would describe the meetings as very positive, but until there is a commitment to a program, funding or partnering, it is only talk. This new government’s platform is about making things more affordable and safer.
My two most interesting sessions were about ‘uncivil civic engagement’ and ‘responsible conduct of elected officials.’ In this day and age, it is too easy to hide behind a computer screen and verbally assault or make unfounded accusations with little repercussion. It makes good people with good intentions shy away from getting involved in the community. There is a reason that our parents warned us not to talk about sex, politics or religion at gatherings: because people are very opinionated and passionate about these topics. Discussions can often turn into “I’m right” and “you’re wrong” simply for having a different opinion. The attacks can quickly become personal and bring down the level of discussion — reminiscent of kids on the school yard disputing how Superman is better than Batman. We all have opinions, perspectives, and desires for our community. I can’t think of anyone on council (past or present) that doesn’t want to make Penticton a better place, but not everyone has the same opinion on what is the best direction or how to get there.
Some people think the mayor is the ultimate decision maker, when in fact I am only one vote out of seven. I am very thankful that this council has never shied away from prickly issues, and despite having heated or spirited debate at times, we have always maintained respect for each other and the integrity of the council table. The mayor doesn’t pick his or her council, the community does. It is really up to the collective on council to commit to working together as a team to make our city a better place.
While I can appreciate people having passionate views about what council has done or not done, it is often the delivery, not the message, that causes the friction or disconnect. That includes the way city hall communicates, but also how citizens express themselves. It is OK to disagree, but if you start your letter or email with a paragraph berating or belittling the same person you are trying to lobby, don’t be surprised if your message is not acknowledged or effective. Treat others as you would expect to be treated is a good adage to live by.
Responsible conduct of elected officials was an equally important topic of discussion in light of the behavior of some members of councils in other communities across the province. There is very little sanctioning or consequences for poor conduct by an elected official. There is a movement to create an integrity commission along with spectrum of penalties to provide councils and communities some tools to deal with breaches of codes of conduct.
As we move forward and as a collective on improving our community, I encourage everyone to foster civil civic engagement so those that want to get involved feel safe, empowered and respected for doing so. Whether it is online at www.shapeyourcitypenticton.ca or through a city committee, community organization or council, we need to foster community pride, passion, and action from a broad cross section of citizens.