Friday, June 26, 2020

Council cautioned not to allow COVID response to become block for community engagement

Monday's City Council session featured much in the way of discussion on proposed developments and the City's grand ambitions for an overhaul of the Prince Rupert Official Community Plan.

From the comments of west side resident Richard Casey seeking details on the path forward for the BC Housing proposal of May, to the revelation that City Manager Robert Long has now taken on the duties of Planner for the city following the retirement of Zeno Krekic;  the over riding theme of the night was the need to keep the public more informed on issues and find the way forward towards community engagement.

That topic loomed large on the mind of Councillor Barry Cunningham, who offered up some cautionary words that as the City continues to find its way forward in these times of the COVID pandemic response, that there is a need to ensure that public engagement is something to look at carefully.

Monday night,  Councillor Cunningham provided the guidance that using COVID-19 as something that will block a lot of communication is an approach that they need to watch out for, highlighting how it is important to get the process out to the public.

"This is a very important piece of our planning that is going to come in the future and I really think public engagement is something that we've got to really look at carefully. By using COVID-19 as you know, sort of something that is going to block a lot of communication and that. I think we need to definitely find a way around it. Whether its a survey we put out in the paper or online or something like that ... I really think the overall picture, we've got to take a careful look at it, because so many times I've heard people say well I didn't know anything about that. And I know we've advertised it and everything, but how we're going to get it out to the public this time to get it right, I think is very important"-- Councillor Barry Cunningham

Mr. Cunningham's comments came as part of the discussion on the process ahead for the Official Community Plan Review, which as we noted earlier this month is currently being steered by consultants from Victoria.

It was the review of the path ahead on Monday from City Manager Robert Long which spurred on the cautionary theme from the Councillor, with Mr. Long making note of the challenges that COVID has provided for the city and how the ways of engaging with the public in the past may not be possible now.

"There was a report, and Council adopted it I think at the last meeting about what we'll do in terms of the  public engagement part, but because of COVID we're going to have to play that by ear. There will be a workshop for Council soon ... we'll schedule it for July the 20th, probably earlier than before the Council meeting. There will be a workshop to go over where we are at, and then to make sure that everyone is comfortable with what the engagement plan is. 

I know a lot of us are having trouble with the changes and we're just not going to be able to have meetings like we used to be able to have. So we're just going to have to work our way through that, you know there isn't going to be big public meetings with rooms full of people. It's just probably not going to be on anytime soon this year, so we're just going to have to work with that" -- City Manager Robert Long.

Mr. Long also made note of some of his past experiences with consultations and offered up a thought towards how the city may wish to approach the path ahead and the engagement required.

"My experience with doing this over many years is that sometimes those big meetings are dominated by special interest circumstances and the individual conversations never kind of really happen, I think that we may want to go after those individual conversations. For example the two issues that you've raised are now issues that we would try to think through in terms of the 1907 plan. 

Those may be more valuable in the long haul than us putting together 200 people and having a big, you know the sort of the standard public meeting and in fact you know we're not going to be able to have those public meetings probably. So we're going to have to figure out another way to do it, and we look forward to having that conversation with Council to see if we can use our creativity to see how we can get a better engagement in the circumstances we find ourselves in" -- City Manager Robert Long

The City Manager was referring  to themes introduced by Councillor Nick Adey earlier in the discussion, speaking to ambitions on long term planning, with Mr. Adey observing as to the need to take into account the concerns of residents and create equity across the city, mindful to the needs for standards for a neighbourhood.

For his contribution Mayor Lee Brain made note of the legal obligation to hit a number of public engagement triggers,  adding that he wants to personally make sure that they have meaningful conversations, reminding council of the three full days of community engagement workshops that they had planned previous to the COVID pandemic situation.

He also reviewed last years planning process with Larry Beasley and how the City had brought in over 80 stakeholders towards participation.  And now they are taking on another year of bringing that plan into the OCP and going well beyond the standard tick tick tick of process approval, as they look to create a meaningful dialogue.

"Part of the OCP process will be and I believe in the summer time we'll probably hear when the public engagement piece is going to come, but the community is going to have an ability to come together in a very meaningful way, it's not just going to be a survey, it's going to be coming together really discussing these topics, lots of advertising, making sure everybody has the ability to have their voice heard, so that there's no stone unturned. 

Because, we're going to be updating pretty much every single bylaw this town has through that process, to really bring us up to the 21st century and make sure that the trajectory over the next ten years is really going where people want it to go, not just from a planning  process but from what the community desires to see" -- Mayor Lee Brain on the city's OCP planning

Not mentioned on Monday was any update on the work of the Vision Steward Council first mentioned by the Mayor in January.

That newly created collective of selective partners in the community, will according to Mayor Brain co-govern the next decade of development in the community and oversee the 2030 vision which will frame much of the discussion on the OCP.

While the Council members continue to look to find ways to engage the residents of the city, that select group seems to have been included in much of the path ahead to implement many of the features revealed at the Mayor's Prince Rupert 2030 vision event.

Mr. Brain also noted how he is looking towards further guidance from the province when it comes public engagements observing that at the moment the City can have no more than six people allowed to gather in a spot, something that he said the city has no control over, observing that perhaps those restrictions may be loosened by the province as part of phase three of their restart plan.

"We may be able to have some different abilities than we have right now, which is a maximum of I believe of six people who are allowed to gather in a spot right? And those are just things that we have no control over" -- Mayor Lee Brain

That number is something which someone at City Hall may want to confirm, earlier this week during the Daily COVID briefing, British Columbia's Public Health Officer, Doctor Bonnie Henry observed how the current regulations for large gatherings is now set at 50, that confirmed as part of an update to her Public health orders in May.

“The provincial health officer's order for no more than 50 people at any gathering stands and will be in place until we can stop COVID-19 in our province with an effective treatment or vaccine. “This applies to everyone, no matter what the circumstances may be."

That latest update on those measure would seem to open the window a bit towards hosting some larger community engagement functions if Council desires.

Though since such sessions would be restricted to that number of 50, more than one session may be required at a larger venue outside of City Hall, and of course dependent on how many Rupert residents would indicate their plans to attend.

Councillor Cunningham is correct to caution towards making COVID a catch-all answer towards any engagement with the public, there are surely some work arounds to be found that could ensure both personal safety and a full and vigorous opportunity for the public to be part of the OCP process.

A process that is destined to bring as much change as the OCP review will offer, should ensure that the city leaves no option on the table to make sure that all voices are heard and all opinions can help shape the document that will guide the city towards its future.

The Full overview of how the City is looking to approach its Official Community Plan review can be viewed from the City's Video archive starting at the twenty minute mark.

For more notes on Monday's Council Session see our Council Timeline feature here.

Our previous notes on Planning themes and Sustainable development can be found here.

A wider overview of City Council Discussion themes can be explored here.


  1. Does Mr. Long not have a conflict of interests promoting the project and doing the planning.

    City Planner, What is the scope of the work?

    Collection, analysis, assembly, interpretation and presentation of data, including the review of land development proposals;
    Process development-related applications of a residential, commercial and industrial nature;
    Write staff recommendation reports to Council and review various types of outside professional reports with a critical eye;
    Review, draft and make recommendations on the amendment of development-related bylaws and polices;
    Representing the Manager and Senior Planners at meetings as required;
    Coordinating development related initiatives;
    May supervise other technical or professional employees;
    Act as liaison between the Planning Department and various senior government officials and the public;
    Provide various groups, committees and Council with technical and professional expertise and guidance

  2. It's little wonder the city struggles with community engagement (even without getting into pandemic logistics). The article mentions the Mayor's puzzling statement in January about how a "Vision Stewardship Council" will "co-govern" a decade of development. He described them as a "collection of partners". Who will sit on that council of unelected co-governors to make momentous decisions? Will choosing them be the Mayor's prerogative?

    At this meeting the Mayor mentioned how last year 80 "stakeholders" were brought together into a planning process. How were they chosen?

    Mr. Long expressed what sounds like cautionary advice about "big meetings dominated by special interest circumstances" rather than "individual conversations".

    Is there a problem with citizens organizing themselves to express a point of view or concern? Is public engagement to be organized so that freedom of assembly is curtailed?

    What comes across is a preference for community engagement as a top-down process with certain "partners" or "stakeholders" being selected to give the appearance of speaking for the community at large. There seems to be a preference for a rather elitist style of government.

    Meanwhile, the council seems to be left on the sidelines in a rather ambiguous position. Is the elected council as a statutory body to "co-govern" the community with an unelected council with no legal standing? Hopefully in the fullness of time the Mayor will provide some details about transparency and accountability if he wishes to pursue that idea.

    Councillors Cunningham and Adey, to their credit, express more traditional and inclusive notions of public engagement. But their views seem to be a kind of "minority report" because the other councillors have remained silent. Perhaps they are mystified by the Mayor's thoughts on public engagement and co-governance and are having trouble formulating their thoughts.