Open to the public
By Sue Tiffin
Published Feb. 14, 2019
As this paper goes to print, Minden Hills councillors are finalizing their decision on whether or not to approve a $12 million (plus HST) new arena/community hub contract. In part because this is a single source bid on our community’s most expensive endeavour to date, all eyes – including many from outside of the township – are on this hot topic. The decision should be one that as many residents as possible are able to bear witness to, in person.
At that meeting, as at all council meetings, taxpayers will be able to see how their elected and acclaimed councillors represent their constituents’ needs. This is a chance to see how town officials work together: how they speak to each other, how they plan and solve problems, and what questions they ask – or if they ask questions at all – for better understanding.
But the meeting for this particular decision is being held at 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. This scheduling limits the number of residents who will be able to attend.
Besides more accessible council meetings, open and public town halls in which ideas are encouraged and discussions are welcome prior to plans being solidified should be held frequently and regularly.
We know that town halls provide an interaction away from a screen – where tone can be misread and online decorum off-putting. Evening public meetings held in other townships in this county when issues are especially controversial have been popular.
The all-candidates meetings hosted by media outlets before elections were each attended by hundreds of people. They brought together a diverse population in one room for healthy face-to-face discourse – so we know this format works.
It’s true, there isn’t a time for council meetings or town halls that will suit everyone perfectly: daytime meetings are nearly impossible for seasonal residents, business owners and employees to attend. In the past, evening meetings might have worked best for everyone, but can be tricky for those who work nights, and families including single parents.
If meetings have been poorly attended, townships can find out why and work toward solutions.
• Meetings should be announced well in advance and planned carefully. The open house to present the design of the arena/community hub project was held on Dec. 17, at a pre-holiday time considered obviously busy for most people.
• During town halls, on-site childcare should be made available, and carpooling promoted or shuttles hired to encourage attendance.
• Public meetings should be streamed online so seasonal residents and those unable to travel locally can take part, or offered as a conference call option so that people can call in to take part in “telephone town halls.”
• Look to other communities. Even a cursory Google search shows what other towns are doing to provide a more open forum for their public.
Other divisive and even more urgent topics will continue to come to the council table. Thoughtful planning of town halls should allow residents to offer input and be heard together, while council meeting scheduling should give residents every opportunity to attend important discussions. Is anyone listening?