Why we criticize… Town Council & Administration

February 7, 2023 – The arrival of a New Year, calendar and lunar, warrants a few moments of personal reflection on what’s passed and what’s likely to come.

It’s been three years since Second Opinion QB was launched. We recognized that not only had our Town become a news desert, but also that we could and should do what we can to offset that void.

The monopoly that PQB News held in our community was unhelpful. Monopolies, like autocracies, beget disillusionment and disinformation, and they erode public confidence and breed apathy, none of which contribute to a thriving, productive society.

Our stated purpose is “to inform residents, to stimulate healthy, respectful discussion and debate, and to motivate readers to engage in the stewardship of our Town.”

Have we made any difference? Very hard to tell; whatever small bends appear in the arc of our town’s progress can seldom be traced to one influence.

As QB residents, over the past two decades we had watched our taxes rise, public services erode, and any semblance of critical analysis of public services disappear from local media. Then along came the SARS-Cov2 virus. Local interaction with each other and with our civic institutions pretty much ceased. The lack of transparency in government, already a chronic problem at our local Town Hall, became extreme. As the Washington Post proclaims on its masthead, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

We often get asked some variation of the basic question: Why do you often criticize the actions of Town Council and Administration? Here’s my perspective: It’s our job.

Public services in a complex society

Any society where every person acts on their own with no respect for accepted norms, social customs, and communal interests doesn’t work. There are dozens of important services that benefit from collective organization, planning and control. Building and sharing in the use of a roadway for example. Or a firetruck, water well, sewer pipe, school, hospital et al.

A strong community needs citizens who have the interest, knowledge, and courage to insist on competence, accountability, and transparency from Town Administration staff and contractors. And we need an elected Town Council who will exercise their legislated authority and duty to hold Town Administration accountable.

None of these services need to be governed by democratically elected governments, but that happens to be the model we currently use in Canada for many shared services. But public services only work well when there is a strong adherence, up and down the chain of command, to the principle of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Like the banking system, the whole mechanism of democratic government depends on trust. The citizens expect their elected representatives to hire competent public servants and contractors, to collect and spend revenues prudently, and to inform the public openly and honestly about what they are doing and why.

Vigorous media scrutiny, the only official opposition at the municipal level

How does the citizenry hold its governments and their public servants accountable?

At the federal and provincial/territorial levels there are built-in checks and balances. The most obvious one is the appointment of an Official Opposition in the legislative chamber whose primary function is to hold government to account, on the public’s behalf between elections.

Traditionally, the “fourth estate,” a free press, has also been acknowledged as essential to sustainable democratic societies. While the contribution of mainstream media continues to be diminished, mostly by self-inflicted wounds, they still have a robust presence in our national and provincial capitals.

Left to right, Councillors Petronella Vander Valk, Jean Young, Mayor Teunis Westbroek and Councillor Anne Skipsey during Town strategic planning session in January 2023. Councillor Scott Harrison was not present during this day. No explanation was given for his absence.

But, what if a government has neither an official opposition (as in most municipalities) nor any critical independent media scrutiny?

That is the civic affairs gap we try to fill at least partially in Qualicum Beach. But we cannot do it alone.

A strong community needs citizens who have the interest, knowledge, and courage to insist on competence, accountability, and transparency from Town Administration staff and contractors. And we need an elected Town Council who will exercise their legislated authority and duty to hold Town Administration accountable.

Is our Town’s governance there yet?

In a word, no. Particularly when it comes to transparency. Here’s a recent case in point that in some ways drips with irony. We are talking about Town communications, a basic cornerstone of transparency and accountability.

A grand communications plan muzzled by a hollow communications strategy

The previous Council elected in 2018, early in its mandate, as part of a commitment to improving the Town’s governance practices, included the development of a “Communication Strategy” in its so-called Strategic Plan. Three and a half years later, on the eve of the October 2022 election, the Town Clerk presented this grand communications plan to Council.

If this is news to any readers, you can be excused because if you went to the Town website and typed “Communications Strategy” in the Search field, you would find nothing there, no options that would lead you to such a beast.

If you searched for “Sarah Couper,” the contracted Nanaimo-based communications consultant who has been working with the Town for a year now, you would get nothing at all. Ironic.

If you happened to attend the September 18, 2022 Special Council meeting scheduled ad hoc to clear up a few loose ends before the October election, you saw a ten-minute presentation by Heather Svensen that speaks volumes about Town Hall’s genetic inability to engage effectively with the public.

Continuing their perpetual habit of internal navel-gazing in their own staff echo chamber will never enable Town Administration to overcome their insular addiction to secrecy at the cost of the public’s trust.

During that meeting Ms. Svensen explained that a year ago, with Couper’s assistance, they conducted a Communications Audit including an “in-depth study of existing communications” and numerous interviews with staff and Council.

Any mention of interviewing members of the media and the general public, who happen to be the critical stakeholders and information consumers? Nothing. Nada.

There was also no mention of seeking out best practices of peer organizations who are recognized for their proficiency in communications, and some of them are very close to home!

One of the best in our experience is Deb Tardif, Manager of Communications for the City of Parksville. The RDN’s Communications Coordinator, Rebecca Taylor, also consistently excels at connecting us with the documents and people we need to do our job.

Not to mention the wealth of professional expertise and experience that has found its way to QB in retirement comprising an able, willing, and free resource in many dimensions of both public and private sector corporate operations, including communications and service quality. An under-utilized resource, the engagement of this “in-community” resource would also pay dividends in earned two-way trust.

Continuing their perpetual habit of internal navel-gazing in their own staff echo chamber will never enable Town Administration to overcome their insular addiction to secrecy at the cost of the public’s trust. Until there is a fundamental attitudinal change, Town Administration’s stated goal to “Improve the Town’s current public inquiry processes and response protocols to clarify, simplify, and ensure accountability” is likely to  remain unreached.

At the same September 2022 meeting, CAO Lou Varela tabled a final Strategic Plan update to the outgoing Council.

In her update, Varela mentioned that “an in-depth update [to the Communications Strategy] to Council is planned for early 2023 for the external aspects of the plan.” Let’s hope they walk-the-talk with some substantive public engagement on the topic, including those of us in media.

In her presentation to Council at that meeting, Ms. Svensen specifically claimed that “We’ve updated our Media Protocol.” We are still waiting to see evidence of that too.

Fast forward to 2023, paying lip service to public engagement promises

After a year of intensive counselling by an outside communications strategy consultant and the production of several related Plans and presentations, Town Administration began 2023 with a breathtaking display of convoluted and dysfunctional public communications.

Providing scant advance notice, the Town announced it would invite members of the public to attend several days of strategic planning sessions with Council in January. Most people would have their calendars filled with post-holidays tasks. Or work.

Near right to back left, senior Town Administration: Engineer Bob Weir, Corporate Administrator Heather Svensen, CAO Lou Varela, Planning Director Luke Sales and consultant. January 2023

The three all-day strategic planning sessions were held at the Qualicum Beach Civic Centre on weekdays. The only option to attend was in person; there was no live streaming or video option for later viewing. If you had to work, care for children or keep a medical appointment, you were out of luck.

Those of us who were able to attend on short notice were “greeted” by the backs of Town Council and Administrators. The room was set up with Council and Administrators in a semi-circle facing the consultant leading the strategic planning sessions, and the public sitting at the back of the room.

Many members of the public were unable to hear much of what was said due to the fact that the speakers were facing away from them, and because no amplification system was made available. Since the public was only there to listen (no participation by the public was allowed), this defeated the purpose of the “public engagement” that Town Administration apparently was seeking.

To be fair, the seating arrangement was changed on Day Two after many complaints were made. Members of the public still had difficulty hearing what was said, owing to the poor room acoustics.

As they say, it’s not rocket science but you’d think it was, given that Town Administration appeared oblivious to the marvels of video streaming technology, and seemingly unaware that they had effectively excluded most of the residents of Qualicum Beach from this invitation to observe “how the sausage gets made” at the municipal level with our tax dollars by holding an in-person only event during weekdays.

Many people wondered why the Town Administrators didn’t simply hold these sessions at Town Hall, where the public would have been more easily accommodated and addressed, and these sessions could be viewed online during and after the sessions?

Was this hastily convened invitation to engage the public in the Town’s “strategic planning” a well-meaning dud, or was it an exercise designed to give the impression that the Town Administration genuinely wishes to improve their communications efforts? We shall see what the rest of the year brings.