If you read this column, or any of the City Hall stories on GuelphToday.com, then you are probably decently informed about the political goings on in Guelph. Getting information from 1 Carden St., to you the people, is pretty much job number one for any media entity that dares to call its a news organization.
Then why does it feel like we’re failing sometimes?
It was another planning meeting at city council this week. Three big projects came forward for their public statuary meeting, and in at least two of those cases, “big” was the operative term. Two high-rise apartment buildings were on the agenda, as was a townhouse complex that had already been to council once. All three generated overwhelming response, or as “overwhelming” as a city council planning meeting usually gets.
Here, the definition of “overwhelming” is a number of people that got up to speak to the development who hadn’t logged advanced notice that they were planning on delegating.
Now I admit that I’m unsure if the rules of delegating are loosened in the case of a statutory planning meeting for specific developments, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that council was being magnanimous by just letting people have their say regardless. What if they would only be allowed to speak by letting the clerk know by 10 am on the Friday before? How many people there Monday night would have known that? How many of them would have been ticked that they unknowingly had to RSVP to talk to their own city council?
Now this is not an elitism thing. Obviously, council and the clerk have to know how many people are going to speaking as it games out how long a meeting might end up being. For instance, if you’ve got 20 delegates, each with a maximum of five minutes to speak, then you’ve got an hour and 40 minutes of time to account for. Let’s round that up to two hours for people to walk to and from the speaker’s podium, and because sometimes there’s follow-up questions.
That’s just the basic matter of delegating, and I’ve tried to do my part by making a video for Guelph Politico showing people how they can get information on when council meetings take place, how you find out what’s on the agenda, and how, if you choose to, you can delegate on a given topic. Still, there are holes.
For instance, what do you do if you want to bring a visual aid? A Power Point presentation? There are hardcore council delegates that know the score like the back of their hand, Dr. Hugh Whiteley comes to mind, but how does that help the noobs? One person speaking out against an apartment block on Janefield near Stone Road Mall came ready with his slideshow except for one thing: who does he give his thumb drive to, or where does he plug it in once he gets there?
Still, plugging in your Power Point seems like super advanced delegating. Step one is getting there to delegate in the first place. I didn’t get a chance to ask anyone when or how they found out about the meeting, but if it’s anything like another contentious planning meeting I wrote about earlier this year, it was likely within a couple of days before that meeting took place.
Theoretically, the information is pretty easy to find. There are community pages published in the Guelph Tribune, the agenda is available in full on the City’s website, there should be a sign up at the area in question informing people when the statutory meeting will take place, and then there are all those news outlets: the Today, the Tribune and Politico.
The City is also supposed to send out notices to all those living within 500 metres of the proposed development, which, in the case of a 14-storey block or a 12-story-block being constructed in a neighbourhood of single family homes and commercial plazas, hardly seems comprehensive enough. Long story short, this should be easy, right?
Here’s the big secret about the Information Age: if you know exactly what you’re looking for, then it’s easy to find most of the time, but if you don’t know you’re supposed to be looking for something, like whether 185 apartments in a ‘L’ snapped building that’s 12-storeys on one side and 10 on the other is going to built on the next street over, well, there’s no Google alert for that.
The genesis of this particular column was a screed on Guelph Speaks where Gerry Barker once again chased one of his favourite canards, the money the City spends on promotion, or as the rest of us call it, communication.
Beyond Gerry’s overriding thesis of “my taxes are too damn high”, was the belief that the Tribune could not be sufficiently critical of city hall so long as it was paying for those community pages. You know, the ones that tell you what city facilities will close on holidays, or what streets are under construction, or when the plot of land next door is slated for a 14-storey apartment building.
As for all those employees on the payroll for communications that infuriate some people in town, let me tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks. Just from a social media side - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al - I manage my own press for my website and two radio shows and staying on top of it always seems like the eleventh on a list of 10 jobs for the day.
In a society in demand for instant information, what can be more important than making sure that people know through all sources just what exactly is going on. This has been a lesson just about every functioning service agency has learned, from transit authorities like the TTC or Metrolinx, to utilities like Guelph Hydro, and holders of higher office like the Mayor, or the Prime Minister. If there’s something worth saying, it’s worth saying as widely as possible, and though that work is all computerized, until Skynet takes over there’s still a human clacking on a keyboard.
Now having said that we’re still left with the original problem of people not getting the information they want and need, and if there’s one thing I’ve discovered in my time doing Politico, it’s that people love just straight-up information. I see it as part of my mission to find the best ways to help people learn the things they need to know, so in the spirit of what I do, and how I do it, I’d like to leave this next part with you…
First, how do you learn about what’s going on at City Hall? Is it from anyone source, or do you work from multiple sources? And having said that, and given what works for you, how do you think we reach the people who aren’t as well informed? Is there something that we, the media, could be doing, or should be doing, to get more people to the proverbial table?
You tell me. It might be the only time I actively seek your advice because I’m pretty awesome most of the time…