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Governance top of mind as Nanaimo council works on its strategic plan

Council working with facilitator to develop draft plan, public consultation still to come

Nanaimo’s brand, image, reputation and governance are on the minds of city councillors.

On Feb. 15, councillors held a special committee of the whole meeting where they spent seven hours discussing and developing a new strategic plan for the city.

Tracey Lorenson, a local government facilitator with Paragon Strategic Services, is helping councillors create the plan, which was last updated by the previous council back in 2015. Once completed, the strategic plan will outline council’s priorities throughout its term length and beyond.

During Friday’s meeting, councillors made it clear they wanted to ensure language around improving the culture around governance at the city was very important to them and should be included in the plan.

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog said governance is “crucial to everything” that elected officials and the city does. He said the previous council hurt the city’s growth.

“There is no question of how the city has been governed in the broad sense of that term in the last four years had an impact on what our economy might have looked like, what sort of development might have occurred, what sort of investment we might have attracted and I think we are all very conscious of that,” Krog said.

Lorenson pointed out that even before the previous mayor who was “on the wrong side” of a majority and a CAO who was “not particularly” experienced, Nanaimo had a history of “struggling with governance.”

“I think it is important for you to recognize you have an opportunity to make a change,” she said.

Sheila Gurrie, the city clerk, said there were issues with decorum, councillors’ conduct toward staff and respect issues that also went beyond the previous council.

“Those are ongoing issues that pre-date the last council,” she said. “There was just a spotlight on it during the last four years.”

Coun. Sheryl Armstrong said the city has been “blackballed” because of poor governance over the last few years.

“We talked to people when we were at UBCM and Nanaimo was not a place people would come to work and that was well known out there and we’ve seen it in our advertisements, where our positions were advertised two or three times and we couldn’t get anybody,” she said, adding that governance must be included so residents and the broader community recognize council’s commitment to improve the situation at city hall.

Jake Rudolph, the city’s chief administrative officer, told councillors the city’s brand and reputation is important and should be taken seriously. He said the municipality’s current reputation isn’t a positive in the eyes of many people outside the community.

“I see aspects of that popping up all over the place in terms of documents that I read,” he said. “I go to a conference last week and that’s all people talk about and I say ‘no, that was two years ago.’ We are still living in the two years ago in the minds of others and we’ve got to fix this.”

Coun. Ben Geselbracht said he felt Rudolph’s comments touched on a critical part of the strategic plan. He said it’s important for the city to develop a focused branding and communication strategy as it will help attract people to the community.

“I think we need to really focus on communications, branding, what type of message we are putting out and then being very strategic about how we are putting that message out, because I really think that is going to determine how other jurisdictions are going to look at us, people we’re going to hire here, the business community,” he said. “It’s all integrated.”

Councillors also mulled other topics to include in the strategic plan throughout Friday’s meeting. Council expressed a desire to see language around the economy, innovation and the environment, with Coun. Erin Hemmens saying it is “OK to make a really bold statement on climate change.”

Coun. Don Bonner said he wants the priorities to contain language that ensures people are given the opportunity to voice their opinions to council.

“I think we should never be in a position where the public comes up to us and says ‘I never had a chance to have my say,’” Bonner said.

Coun. Ian Thorpe said he doesn’t want to see specific projects included, but does want to see language around the city’s waterfront included, because “it is just a very important aspect of our community.”

Meanwhile, Krog said he wants to see the plan have priorities and goals that council can look back at in four years and analyze. He said he’s supportive of language around supporting increased density in the city’s downtown area and he also would be open to having more disclosure from councillors and their spouses when it comes to their own personal investments.

“What we file now is absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “I was sitting there the other day reading about Western Forest Products and I remembered my wife has shares in Western Forest Products in her RSP. Does the public know that? Of course they don’t know that. Did I remember it out of the back of mind sitting there, yeah I did. I think the public should know that.”

Speaking to the News Bulletin afterward, Thorpe said he felt the session went well, adding that it was the second time council met to discuss the strategic plan. He said there will be another meeting regarding the plan and that council is considering holding public engagement sessions but isn’t sure when that will happen.

“I think there was consensus at the table that there was a desire for certainly sharing what our thoughts are to this point with the public and getting some feedback, but how that is done, the details will have to be worked out,” he said.

Thorpe said it’s hard to determine what council’s strategic priorities will look like when it’s finally adopted. He said he’s more supportive of having general topics or themes in the plan, rather than a list of projects.

“I think it is important to identify the general areas and then gradually get more specific. Then, when we are approached with projects or requests from groups within the city, we need to look and see if that does fit in with our general strategic plan,” he said.

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