September 03, 2014

Annual Report and Question Period needed

As published in The Erin Advocate

Since the Town of Erin is embarking on a review of its operations, I have two suggestions for improvement in the area of public relations.

The function known as “public relations” doesn’t have the best of reputations, since it can involve high-priced “communications professionals” pretending to tell you important things – when their main job is to leave a positive impression, while telling you nothing of importance. We can’t afford anything like that.

What I’m talking about is a basic exercise in democracy – treating taxpayers as shareholders, with the opportunity to ask questions and get information they can understand. These rights are already in place, of course, but they are not always convenient or effective.

The Town of Erin has a serious public relations problem. There is deep mistrust of politicians and staff among many taxpayers, and widespread apathy and misunderstanding about Town functions. Aggressive remedial efforts are in order.

The first idea is a 15-minute Question Period at the beginning of each council meeting. This should happen at the very beginning, before haggling over the agenda or the minutes of the last meeting, and before the official delegations. As a matter of principle, listen to the people first.

The first ten residents to come forward would simply state their name and ask one question about Town business. No pre-registration, no pre-screening, no speeches, no debating, no decisions and no guarantee of getting an answer.

Most often the answers might be: “Yes, we’re working on that”, “No, we hadn’t heard about that, but we’ll look into it and get back to you”, “We already tried that and this is why it didn’t work”, “Sorry, that’s out of our control”, “No, that’s against our policy”, “Sorry, that’s too expensive, but maybe next year”, or even “You’ve got to be kidding.”

It’s not so much about the content as the process. It’s an addition to the existing right to ask questions of staff or council by email, phone or in person. It’s about knowing you can show up at any regular meeting and raise an issue in public.

The second idea is an Annual Report, which ties in with the shareholder concept. There is no shortage of information about Town business – most of it is in the hundreds of pages delivered to council and made public at every meeting. The system is designed for reports to council, more so than reporting to the public.

Councillors have trouble digesting it all, and despite the valiant efforts of the press to keep the public informed, many people still don’t have a good handle on the big picture. An Annual Report would give the Town the opportunity to provide an overview in its own words.

I’m not talking about a glossy magazine-style report and a big printing budget. Just one page from each department, with a chart or two, summarizing their achievements and major projects over the past year, mentioning notable emergencies or opportunities, a brief summary of spending, and their priorities for the coming year.

To give each department some attention, their individual reports could be released on different dates leading up to the main report. It could be mailed to all taxpayers, or provided as a download with suitable publicity.

In addition to the staff-based sections of the Report, there could be a section where each of the five council members would give their impressions of the previous year, report on how they voted on major issues, and what they hope to achieve in the next year.

Expecting about 500 words of commentary per year from our politicians is not really a lot to ask. Then, when election time rolls around, residents would at least have an idea of where their representatives stood on this, that and the other thing.

The Annual Report could be timed for release at the beginning of the budget process. With everyone up to speed on each Town department, perhaps there will be more people able to make intelligent suggestions on how their tax dollars should be spent.

Are any of the election candidates willing to make these two ideas part of their platform?