LETHBRIDGE: An attempt to get the public out to an open and effective government committee meeting at city hall Wednesday fell flat - but council says they're committed to keep trying.
Despite efforts to alert media and residents ahead of time, only two people came to the meeting - which was the committee's third gathering since this council established it soon after elections. Committee chair Ald. Bridget Mearns said the poor turnout was expected, but it's a start to "build on."
"I'm not surprised because it's a brand new thing. In the past, these committee meetings have been held in a board room, not because they were meant to be secret, but because there was never really any thought to it being open or available to the public before," she said. "I'm just encouraged that we're here in public, having these meetings, having these discussions and folks are welcome to come, if they can."
Making committee meetings open to the public is just one of several measures this council and the last group of aldermen have used to try and make city hall processes more accessible. It was former mayor Bob Tarleck's crew that initiated a $1 million overhaul of the city website. The new website, which was unveiled earlier this year, will now be a launching pad for other efforts, like live video streaming for council meetings. Council is also working on a social media plan and has hired a former Lethbridge reporter to act as their media liaison.
But these measures are still getting a lukewarm response from some citizens who say they're too focused on getting their own message out to the public, rather than inviting public feedback in. One such critic made up half the sparse audience at Wednesday's committee meeting.
"Public communication can't be a cyclical thing where three weeks prior to the budget, they invite you in to look at a fancy storyboard and ask you for your feedback, when they have no intention of using that information," said Mike Williams, a member of Lethbridge's Citizens for Better Governance advocacy group. "Public consultation needs to be a 365-day-a-year process, and I don't think the City is anywhere near that right now."
Williams used the example of Wednesday's meeting itself, which was focused primarily on how council wanted to do to get their message out. There was no process for the public or audience members to speak or share ideas.
"Administration inadvertently - and they are doing a lot of good work on this - end up telling me what's going to happen, when the politicians are inviting me for feedback," he said. "It seems as though the staff have already made up their mind how they're going to do things."
Ald. Jeff Coffman, who also sits on the committee, agreed the format still needs work. "A change I'd like to see at the next meeting is to offer the public the opportunity to come forward and give them a couple of minutes at the microphone to state what their concerns are, even if it's constructive criticism about how we can be more open," said Coffman. "Otherwise, consultation becomes: 'here's what we're doing, what do you think?' As opposed to - 'we have an idea, let's work on this together.'"
The next meeting of the Open and Effective Government Committee is scheduled for Wednesday, November 30. Council has also sent a public invite to city council's Environment Committee meeting, where they'll be discussing a possible curbside recycling plan, at 1:30 on Thursday, October 20 at city hall.