COLUMN: Earlier connection would be helpful

NANAIMO – People are less engaged, citing apathy, busy families and a disconnect between city hall and the general public as the reasons.

Had an interesting conversation with a senior manager at city hall the other day. After our formal interview, I switched my recorder off and we had a frank chat about the city and its future.

These to me are always the best conversations – guards are down and more candid thoughts are discussed. I was asked if I felt people were engaging more in city affairs these days than in the past.

I thought about it for a moment and replied that, in my opinion, people are less engaged, citing apathy, busy families and a disconnect between city hall and the general public as the reasons. I offered the relatively poor turnout for public participation in the city’s strategic plan as an example.

There was a pause at the other end of the line, but I couldn’t tell if it was disappointment, disagreement or distraction.

I thought about my response more after we hung up and came to a further conclusion that, perhaps, there is more engagement, but a lot of it is negative.

By that I mean people are only paying attention when city hall makes a decision that might affect a person or neighbourhood, and they don’t like it or understand it.

In the case of development, of which there is a lot in Nanaimo these days, a public hearing is scheduled only after council has passed the first two readings. By that time, a developer has already invested a considerable amount of time, money and resources into a project, and council often has a hard time putting the brakes on the development. The window for open consultation is small.

Unfortunately, just prior to a public hearing is often the first time residents hear about an issue that may affect them, and reactions are often negative and untrusting.

So how to make a connection earlier that won’t result in a negative knee-jerk reaction?

For starters, developers should be required to notify the nearest residents of their plans at the same time they are submitting applications to city hall, especially if there is rezoning or variances required. A simple meeting would go a long way in reducing questions and concerns.

In my neighbourhood, a large development is before council that has some of my neighbours worried. Will there be extensive blasting? Why was the property rezoned from multi-family to single family residential when increases in population density is the goal of council? Can you build through a Garry oak ecosystem? Will trucks be accessing the site down our road or another way?

The uncertainty is unsettling.

If the plan changes, people should be notified, not surprised.

But residents can meet the city and developers at least part way on this. Often, large signs are erected at a site if rezoning or variances are required, and residents have an opportunity to call and ask questions.

But I think that can go one step further. In Nanaimo, most neighbourhoods have neighbourhood associations, who meet regularly to discuss goals and projects in each community.

There needs to be a system in place where information can quickly and efficiently cascade from city hall to residents without residents having to browse the multitudes of council agendas and committee minutes slapped up on the website at dizzying speeds.

There are dozens of committees and commissions that meet regularly in Nanaimo, advising council on which direction to take on certain matters. By having involved representatives from each community on these boards, the information can be distributed efficiently.

To me, these committees and commissions are the roots of any city. The tree will only grow to be healthy if the roots are strong and absorbing as much information as possible.

By getting people talking at the street level about what is taking place around them, many of the questions can be answered, and hopefully the uncertainty and distrust can be replaced by effective and knowledgable communication.