Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Should Residents Trust When the Municipality Seeks Their Input?

Stephen Vance, Editor

Some Meaford residents should be forgiven if they opt out of participating in the newly announced branding initiative being undertaken by the municipality. It was only five years ago that dozens of businesses and individuals participated in a branding exercise that resulted in the adoption of the slogan ‘The Other Big Apple’, despite the participants and the community at large practically screaming from the rooftops, “We don’t want to be known as The Other Big Apple!”

The experience left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and I still hear about the whole ordeal occasionally when readers bring it up with me.

What bothered people more than the silly slogan was that they had taken time out of their busy schedules to participate in the workshops, only to be ignored in favour of a dumb idea being pushed by a know-it-all CAO who was hell-bent on getting his way.

I know some of my readers, especially the angrier sort, don’t like to hear this, but while I understand the concern, things are a little different in this town these days.

Gone is the dictator-style CAO who muzzled (and divided) councillors and staff while creating one public relations catastrophe after another (anyone care to remember the proposed garbage incinerator?); instead, we have a CAO who lets councillors, committees, and municipal staff do their jobs while she manages the senior managers. Whereas five years ago the CAO not only guided the ship, he took over all of the controls and pulled the shades lest anyone wanted to complain, today the approach is more hands off, and councillors, staff and, most importantly, residents are actually listened to.

Just this week I overheard a conversation in which a resident and businessperson was mildly stunned that municipal staffers asked his opinion on some proposed adjustments to a policy that would have an impact on him. Not only was he impressed, I could tell from the tone of his voice that he felt valued by the municipality. I am encountering more and more of these sorts of situations and conversations, so it isn’t just me telling you that things are different these days, the residents and ratepayers are experiencing it first hand – and we all know how the grapevine works, they are sharing their recent experiences with council or the municipality with friends and neighbours. The grapevine however can be painfully slow, especially when the news is good.

There wasn’t much of that positive energy five years ago, when many felt not just ignored by council and the municipality, they also felt marginalized.

Since the latest branding exercise was announced on Monday, I’ve raised the issue with half a dozen folks in casual conversation. Not surprisingly, half of them scoffed at the mere mention of municipal branding, and the other half scoffed at the notion that thoughts shared with the municipality would actually be considered.

Tough audience.

Believe me, I too remember and despise the climate of five years ago – that same former CAO had a very thin skin (don’t all the blustery know-it-all types have thin skins?) and he held a grudge– especially if you wrote commentary in opposition to his plans and views, and even more especially if you called him on his bullshit.

However, I have great confidence that the current council and administration mean it when they say they want input from residents, and I have confidence that they actually value the input of the residents they serve.

True, ratepayers have been deceived or ignored in the past, and will no doubt be deceived or ignored at some point in the future, but it is so much more difficult to chart the future when we’re clinging to the past. Yes, we need to be ever vigilant, and yes, we need to forever be on our guard that we the common citizens keep our municipal government in line, but we also sometimes need to set the past aside, and trust the present enough to ensure the future will be a little less flawed.

That said, council and municipal staff must realize that it can take a long, long time to regain trust and for old wounds to heal – and that the leash that ratepayers will allow these days is quite short: for that, residents should offer no apology. Once burned, twice shy, and we in this municipality have been burned more than once in the past half dozen years.

Like the weather in the past week, the climate at the municipal office and around the council table has changed drastically in recent years. Perhaps understandably, it will take longer for the climate amongst the ratepayers to change, but it should.

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