Thursday, October 21, 2021

Good Communication Can Save a lot of Frustration

Much frustration and suspicion could have been avoided earlier this month, if only the municipality had thought to communicate with residents.

When residents began hearing of a July 2 SkyDev meeting, many were furious that an unannounced meeting, focused on arguably the most contentious development proposal the municipality has seen in years, was being held on the Friday of the first long weekend of the summer.

The rumour mill fired up almost immediately. Locals began chatting about this ‘secret meeting’. Some suspected foul play, others were certain that they had been intentionally excluded from the meeting, while others suggested that SkyDev was simply ‘checking boxes’ by holding a meeting, and they didn’t give a flying fiddle about the community or its residents, or if anyone actually attended.

When CAO Rob Armstrong returned from a week of vacation on Monday, July 12, he was able to shed some light on the issue. Armstrong informed me that the meeting was not a municipal meeting at all, but rather a meeting held by SkyDev in order to engage with residents. The CAO explained that while the email invitations came from his email address, that was simply a matter of protecting the privacy of residents. I was told that SkyDev is planning several of these meetings in order to engage with the community in small, manageable groups, particularly given the restrictions we have been operating under for many months.

The explanation provided by the CAO after the fact makes a lot of sense, but what would have made more sense would have been to inform the entire community ahead of time that SkyDev would be hosting independent, non-municipal meetings with small groups, and they would work their way through the list of residents who had expressed concerns.

It would have taken a municipal staffer roughly five minutes to whip up and issue a press release, say in mid-June, informing residents of the plan. The five minutes it would have taken would have saved an entire community becoming outraged and assuming the worst.

For those who had been outraged that no member of Council or staff attended the July 2 meeting, the advance notice would have informed residents that staff and Council weren’t even invited to the meeting, as it was to be an opportunity for the community and the developer to have discussions without staffers and councillors hovering in the background.

An announcement in advance to the entire community would have avoided all of the frustration and confusion that resulted from what was for many a surprise meeting on a very important development proposal.

Earlier this year, this municipality undertook a communications study. A consultant was hired at a cost of more than $30,000, and the report is expected to be presented to Council in September.

When the consultant interviewed me for roughly half an hour a few months back, I suggested that one area this municipality could make some significant improvements is informing the public and the media of public planning meetings. Meaford, like any other municipality, follows the provincial rules and regulations, and as such, for any proposed development notices are sent to immediate neighbours, those within 120 metres of the proposed development site. I suggested to the consultant that the media should also be informed of each and every public meeting notice issued, as it is not uncommon for me to hear of such a meeting from an invited resident, not from the municipal office. I also suggested that for major development proposals, the 120 metre rule should be cast aside, and notice of public meetings for major development proposals should be issued to all in the municipality.

For all who experienced confusion, frustration, and outrage after learning last minute of a day after Canada Day meeting on the most talked about development proposal in the municipality, your frustrations come down to ineffective communication from our municipal administration.

More of these small meetings are being planned, and hopefully the municipality will do a better job of informing the community, the entire community, in advance.

When I spoke to Mayor Clumpus by phone earlier this week, I suggested that all of the angry email messages and phone calls could have been avoided with a simple, proactive communication to the media and the public outlining the meetings to be planned, and who would be invited and when, she could not have agreed more.

Five minutes. That is all it would have taken in order to avoid a week of community frustration and outrage. Five minutes.

As I have written many times before, optics are everything in municipal politics, and if it looks to residents like they are being kept in the dark with intent, or that games are being played, that is a failure of our municipal government.

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