Confusion reigns in Council debate over community engagement task force

By Spencer Sterritt
January 12, 2018 - 6:13pm Updated: January 13, 2018 - 6:55am

City Council on Monday, Jan. 8, where they discussed the findings of a task force they created.City of Nanaimo

NANAIMO — How Nanaimo City Council interacts with the public was a source of heated discussion and confusion.

Members of the Community Engagement Task Force, which was created in the summer of 2017 and held one open house session in November, appeared before City Council at Monday's committee of the whole meeting.

For roughly 90 minutes, Council debated the findings of the task force, the importance of public engagement and how they should proceed. Multiple motions were brought to the floor and amended, prompting even City Clerk Sheila Gurrie to tell Council at one point “I'm as confused as you are.”

Gurrie said the major issue at hand was whether Council wanted a task force doing community engagement sessions, or if the task force was to decide on ways Council could best do a community engagement session.

She referenced confusion she'd heard from many councillors about the issue.

A staff recommendation to regularly schedule public engagement sessions every three months starting in February 2018, with Council deciding the topics, was shut down. Councillors Sheryl Armstrong, Bill Bestwick, Diane Brennan, Ian Thorpe and Jerry Hong opposed the recommendation.

Coun. Bill Yoachim said he was disappointed with the decision to not schedule more public engagement sessions.

“We're here saying we want public engagement but then we vote down public engagement? It doesn't make sense to me. Sooner or later we're not going to have a task force because they're going to be so insulted, saying 'What the heck am I even doing this for since we just got voted down?'”

Earlier in the night, task force representatives did say planning for the second public engagement session was on hold.

“We don't wish to put that work in unless we know it's going to come to fruition,” delegate Erin Hemmins told Council.

Though more sessions are not currently being planned, it's not the end of the task force.

A motion to have them return to Council once more to recollect and re-package their gathered data was introduced by coun. Brennan.

“It sounded to me like the task force believed they still had work to do...From my point of view, if them doing more work would clarify this, then I would be most happy to see them do that. I think that's the only respectful way to deal with this.”

“I think it's very unfortunate there's been misunderstanding over the mandate of the task force,” coun. Thorpe said. “But I would still like to hear at least one more time from the task force on, specifically, their ideas for different ways of interacting on us. And then we can decide what to do.”

A 72-page report from the task force detailed work done, both how to best engage with the community and what topics would ideally be discussed, including the Nanaimo Recycling Exchange being City-sponsored and a “council that seems to be out of control.”

“I thought we were coming up with ideas about how we engage the public, not about the topics?” coun. Jerry Hong asked. “I don't really care about them picking the topic, I don't want them to deal with the topic. Give me options on how I can engage the public. That's what I want to see.”

Chief administrative officer Tracy Samra told Council the issue of picking topics was a difficult one, since staff felt uncomfortable making suggestions.

She recommended Council go in-camera at several points during the night to “discuss the personnel and other issues...I've brought to your attention on several occasions in formal email with legal counsel attached.”

The discussion happened more than a year after the approved motion from 2016 directing a committee of staff, Council and the public to design and hold four community engagement sessions three months apart. A staff report showed the format wasn't developed until last July and the first session wasn't until November.

“It's unfortunate the task force did not get up and running right after the motion was made,” delegate Bill Manners told Council. “But that's quite normal as the staff in the City of Nanaimo are doing a fabulous job of doing their best to keep up with council's many projects. They don't all start the day the motion is made.”

An official statement from the task force said they're pleased for the vote to bring them back at least once. “We think it provides a great opportunity for the task force to deliver Council with some additional information and potential steps forward that can be of assistance towards their decision-making on this valuable initiative.”

It's unclear when the task force will make their final appearance.


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On Twitter: @spencer_sterrit

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