It’s not unusual for hundreds to attend public meetings about big projects in Qualicum Beach

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Listening to the people in Qualicum Beach

Led by their CAO, town staff start a plan to gather public input in a different way

The Town of Qualicum Beach is getting more active in gathering input.

“The main philosophy is to try to go to where people are, where they want to be,” said chief administrative officer Daniel Sailland.

“We’re saying ‘where are you? We’ll come to you’,” he said. They are training staff to facilitate small meetings which have already been held in unusual places like an Eaglecrest home.

On a recent evening, 16 town staff volunteered their time to learn the general idea. Of those, six were selected to help guide meetings on the first project under the new model, planning for the future of the Harlech Road fire hall site after the department moves into the new hall later this year.

Drawing on existing models set out by groups like the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) and less formally from cities that are more active in public engagement like Vancouver and Victoria, Sailland said it’s all about “letting people access your government on your time.”

This will eventually all be tied together with things like webcasting council meetings and more online interactivity under a considerably updated communications policy.

“This council is very keen on hearing what everybody has to say,” said Mayor Teunis Westbroek.

“We still have to make a decision at the end of the day, but this is a good way to take the pulse of the community on a variety of issues.”

“The town has not done a good job of having effective communication loops internally,” Sailland said.

Director of planning Luke Sales was the first sent for a week of IAP2 training on how to engage the public, which will put staff more up front in information gathering.

Traditionally a consultant would gather the information and present it to staff who would then have to study it and process what to do with it.

Under the new model, Sailland said, staff will save time on processing because they’ll be familiar with the information.

“We’ll have more people in more departments with an understanding of community engagement and dialogue, so you can take advantage of not only the formal, but you can also roll out the informal,” he said, speaking of the “huge amount of caring and passion for the community among staff.”

“What we haven’t done is take that caring and turn it into new and effective approaches,” he said, admitting the key is turning it into meaningful decisions.

“Up front it is more staff time, over time that will come into balance,” he said. “By blurring the lines and having staff go get that information, I’m hoping to save on the back end.

“I think there’s wisdom in that investment.”

Westbroek also believes the town will benefit, adding that the new approach will help those who aren’t comfortable speaking in large groups and he’s excited about how it will all tie in with the town’s new Internet initiatives.

“The community becomes part of the decision-making process,” Sales added, “and hopefully the decisions are better, but in any case there’s more community buy-in.

“Time will tell whether they’re right or wrong decisions,” Sailland quipped, but “the residents care deeply about their ability to interact.”

Sales spoke of the first such informal public meeting where a woman in Eaglecrest invited about eight neighbours and the town over to discuss the Harlech Road site.

“We had a great discussion, filled notes out on a board and then at the end they did the survey. It was very relaxed, very comfortable because everyone knew each other.”

“Once past the initial nervousness, people are sharing new ideas, there’s more chance for personalities and different perspectives,” Sailland added.

“And it builds the capacity of the community,” Sales said. “It’s an investment in the community, the overall community benefits.”

They admit they are developing a lot of this for the local community as they go, with the Harlech Road site acting as a pilot project that they will continue to fine tune.

The results of the outreach phase will then be presented back to the public at an open house.

The new process will then be carried forward to the development of a waterfront master plan, starting later this year, and the official community plan (OCP) update next year.

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