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City of Nanaimo looks at committee structure and town hall format in effort to engage citizens

Councillor says she will make motion to re-establish public safety committee
City councillors, at a governance and priorities meeting this week, discussed the value of quarterly town hall meetings versus adding committees to deal with issues and generate more public engagement. (News Bulletin file photo)

The City of Nanaimo will discuss bringing back a public safety committee, starting other committees and upping the number of town hall meetings in an effort to increase citizen engagement.

Councillors, at a governance and priorities committee meeting Monday, Feb. 13, talked about possible changes to the city’s committee structure and the frequency and format of e-town halls.

The exercise – in which city staff polled councillors during the meeting – was part of a process to help the current city council carry out its strategic mandates over its four-year term. Two of the poll questions gauged committee members’ interest in holding quarterly town hall meetings and asked whether additional committees should be created to deal with specific issues such as public safety.

GPC members mostly favoured quarterly town halls. Councillors Erin Hemmens and Janice Perrino said they viewed them as opportunities to educate the public, especially about issue regarding the new official city plan, and gather public feedback that could inform council and city staff direction.

“We were talking earlier of giving the public an opportunity to provide input on GPC topics and I wonder if this might be a more interesting opportunity for the public to say what they want the town hall subjects to be and that way we could potentially tie in to whatever the hot line issue is currently on the agenda,” Hemmens said.

But Coun. Ian Thorpe and Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog questioned the effectiveness of town halls as a public engagement format.

“The town halls that we have currently are at budget time and, quite honestly, I don’t find them very effective at all,” Thorpe said. “We have minimal participation. It’s a handful of people … very few questions and … I’m not overwhelmed by the success of that format. If we feel it’s a format that would be successful, given a certain topic, then fine, but just to have it for the sake of having it, I need to be convinced.”

Krog said he also questions their effectiveness.

“Town halls are great when … the topic actually coincides with some public event or outrage or whatever that actually brings people out to speak,” the mayor said. “Otherwise, I must tell you, cynically, one of the reasons you have town halls, as a politician, historically, is so you’ll be able to say when people complain about something, ‘Well, we had a town hall and you didn’t come.’”

Krog acknowledged that a town hall about public safety, however, would likely draw a lot of people.

On the topic of public safety, Coun. Sheryl Armstrong argued for creation of a public safety committee rather than town hall discussions, citing a recent public safety rally. She said she has chaired a public safety committee that she characterized as successful, and said they’ve also worked in other communities.

“For me, I don’t think a public town hall on public safety would accomplish much,” she said. “I think we need to get a committee back up and running where we do have accomplishments and people do have a voice and they get referred to that committee first and then it comes [to council].”

Armstrong said she will table a motion to establish a public safety committee at a future council meeting.

Other committees, such as an arts and culture committee suggested by Coun. Paul Manly, could be established, but Coun. Ben Geselbracht suggested avoiding starting multiple new committees and instead making more efficient use of the governance and priorities committee.

“Instead of having a bunch of committees on these OCP points … it could all be integrated into the GPC and make that really functional and coherent with our community plan and then have natural touch points for the community,” Geselbrecht said. “There’s a whole section on public safety. Maybe that’s a big priority for this council in our strategic planning, so there’ll be a lot of action points on it and then we have regular GPCs that touch base on that item where we can invite the community to provide feedback.”

Sheila Gurrie, director of legislative services and city clerk, said Geselbracht’s comments aligned with some of city staff’s ideas on the subject.

Coun. Tyler Brown expressed concern that too much was being funnelled into the governance and priorities committee.

“We’ve just gone through this huge exercise developing the city plan … It just seems like a natural fit to have committees based on the five major sections of the plan,” he said. “I think that covers what we do, there’s going to be clear action plans that are associated and then it just becomes a matter of determining scale: what goes to committee and what goes direct to council,” Brown said.

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Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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