By Mike Archer. One of the most important ways in which citizens can exercise their rights between municipal elections is through the public hearing process. It is often the first, and sometimes the only, active engagement many citizens have with their municipal government.
There have been a number of business people, developers and business organizations which have been accused of having much too close a relationship with officials and politicians in Abbotsford. Whille in practice that may well have been true, the process is built in such a way as to prevent that from occurring. When those who understand and know the process best know how to use it to their advantage and the average citizen is neither familiar with nor cognizant of the process or its practical workings, the advantage necessarily goes to those who understand it and use it regularly.
The public hearing process is often poorly understood by those outside of the development community, and members of the public who participate rarely have the background; the public speaking experience or the ability to either understand or make use of the system effectively.
In the interests of helping citizens to better understand the process and provide for a more useful operation of the process, I’ve put together some notes below, a primer of sorts, based on some 20 years of sitting through a seemingly endless number of public hearings many of which have led to nothing but frustration, misunderstanding, conflict, and, ultimately, bad planning.
Council won’t/can’t respond
Most people, coming to the public hearing process, believe there will be some sort of discussion and that their point of view will be debated.
It is not a debate. It is not a discussion. By law, councillors are not allowed to discuss, respond or answer your opinions or questions. They are there to hear your objections, concerns or support for the project/proposal in question.
The time for discussing the project/proposal with staff, politicians and/or the developer was before the public hearing (perhaps during the open house if the proposal requires an OCP amendment) when the developer/proponent, City staff and politicians are available to discuss the project, answer questions, argue or agree and speak openly with interested citizens.
The purpose of the public hearing is to accept the views, opinions and concerns of all those who claim an interest in the proposal and allow all concerned to publicly state their reasons for supporting or opposing the project.
No new information
Council is legally precluded from taking any new information on the project/proposal as that deadline has already passed by the time of the public hearing. So exhortations to ‘come out and see for yourself’ will fall on deaf ears.
If you want to provide council with information, you have to do so long before the public hearing.
As long as you have provided materials in advance (usually two weeks) you may make a presentation and developers often use this opportunity to present an expensive, slick and professional video touting the virtues of their proposal.
Citizens are often at a loss when faced with what they sometimes perceive as an unfair advantage, but the same opportunity is available to them if they can afford it.
Advice on being effective
… chose your target and prepare a strategy
There is a reason developers often use glitzy sales video,s and brochures do their talking for them – they work. They are simple; to the point; positive and provide as few opportunities for disagreement as possible.
By contrast, most individual citizens who participate in the process make terrible presentations which, if they don’t confuse councillors and the public, may even antagonize those who must endure them.
Do not …
… list all of the reasons this project is a bad idea.
Most opponents strategise that if they come up with enough reasons not to approve the project their argument can’t fail.
If you intend to convince council that, by every possible measure, this is a bad idea, no one will believe you. Every development is not bad for the neighbourhood, bad for crime, bad for traffic, bad for the environment, bad for the air, bad for sewage, bad for water, bad for property values, bad for children, bad for parking, bad for traffic and bad for the weather …
Most developers do a reasonably good job of addressing all of those things before ever getting to the public hearing stage so, if you expect to be heard or believed, focus on one, or maybe two, aspects of the proposal which you can show to lacking or of concern.
Do not …
… talk for more than five minutes.
Even five minutes can seem endless to those listening if you are ill prepared, appear confused or, as so often happens, you are merely repeating points already made by others.
… Stick to one or two points. Make them briefly and effectively. Sit down.
Do not …
… make the mistake of believing that numbers will win the day. Yes – votes matter and politicians can count. But think about it; if an entire neighbourhood withholds their political support from one or more councillors it won’t make or break their chances in the next election. While filling the council chambers with supporters does have a significant impact on councillors by waking them up and forcing them to listen, it is your arguments which will win the day. One articulate spokesperson making one or two good points will have much more of an impact than 20 people rambling off the same incoherent arguments.
… talk to City staff and educate yourself on the Official Community Plan (OCP) and learn as much as possible about the history of the proposal, the developer and any other projects they may have completed in the City
Do Not …
… assume that, because you see the project as a bad thing it will be obvious to others just because you are pointing it out. Build a case based on the real aspects of the project you believe to be bad for the community and then explain yourself simply and forcefully.
… consult with councillors before deciding on a course of action. Go to the open house presentation of the project where both staff and council will be present and able to talk to you. Remember that the public hearing is not the place or the time for councillors to answer your questions or discuss the project. They are legally obligated not to take any new information.
Do Not …
… save your ammunition (your arguments) for the public hearing or expect any discussion of your concerns. It simply won’t happen.
… admit openly to the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome if it applies to you. You are perfectly entitled, as a property owner and taxpayer to defend your views and the value of your property. If your NIMBYism is near-sighted and not in the interests of the community at large (like that of the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association in opposing a low barrier shelter for alcohol dependent men), then be honest about it and win or lose on that basis.
Do Not …
… disavow the NIMBY syndrome and then proceed to demonstrate that it is, in effect, exactly what you are doing.
Think through your position. Arm yourself with facts and advice from City staff and politicians and focus your opposition to the project on the one or two facets which most appropriately define the problems or issues you want to focus on.
Talk to the developer. You may find that your objections are easily dealt with. Most developers want their projects to go ahead so that they can make money. Unfriendly relationships with neighbours are not conducive to a successful project. Most developers will do whatever it takes to eliminate opposition by answering neighbourhood concerns
If, after talking to the developer, City staff and politicians you are still opposed, then make a short, concise and powerful presentation at the public hearing and ensure every councillor has a copy of your presentation as do members of the media. Then, once you exhausted all avenues of dissent, you have to trust in the system to work fairly and properly*.
City of Abbotsford Development Planning.
*Addendum: For those who are concerned that there are a small number of business people, organizations and individuals with close enough ties to politicians that they hold undue influence over the planning and approval process, don’t forget; the majority of the men and women who sit on our new council actively campaigned against such favouritism and those business people, organizations and individuals backed the wrong horse. While there is undoubtedly a lot of backtracking, schmoozing and attempts to regain lost influence, Abbotsford has a rare opportunity to put its new OCP in place and show both staff and the business community how the game works when it is played by the rules. If our new council doesn’t live up to its promises their failure to do so will be a big issue at the next election.