Newsletter: The City says it wants dialogue with citizens. How should that work in practice?

Good morning,
This is the Peterborough Currents News and Updates newsletter, where we bring you local stories straight to your email inbox.

As a journalist, a fair amount of my time is spent tracking down information: the whats, the whens, the whos of notable current events – a lot of that information is available publicly if you know where to look. (Honestly, I find a lot of that data hunting very fun – it can be like a treasure hunt through terribly designed government websites.)

The next part of the job is making sense of the data you’ve found… asking questions like how do these nodes of information fit together? And how were decisions made using this data? Or… how were decisions made not using that data?

Government records are supposed to be accessible to the public by default, but that isn’t always the case in practice. And sometimes, records that would otherwise be accessible need to be withheld due to privacy concerns.

That became an issue in Peterborough recently, when one city councillor was told she’d need to file a freedom-of-information request to access the results of a public engagement survey that the City had administered.

In fact, there were two instances last month where council voted on an issue without seeing the full public survey results that were meant to inform their decision.

This begs the question: what exactly are these surveys for? It’s something my colleague Will Pearson and I have been thinking about recently. Here’s Will with the story:

The City says it wants dialogue with citizens. How should that work in practice?

Peterborough City Hall (Photo: Michael Morritt, Creative Commons 4.0 share alike by attribution license.)

During the 2018 municipal election, many community members expressed a desire for increased public engagement and consultation from City Hall.

In October 2019, the City launched Connect Peterborough, an online platform that makes it much easier for the City to solicit feedback and comments from citizens (as long as they have access to the internet).

No one could have predicted the outsized importance that such online engagement was about to take on, with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the usual circuit of in-person meetings that also help connect citizens with the municipal decision-making process.

But now that the Connect Peterborough website is up and running, another question has arisen. What should be done with all the data accumulated through these surveys?

Last month, city council approved the vision statement and objectives for Peterborough’s next transportation master plan, a document that will shape transportation planning in the city for the next 20 years.

A third-party consulting company, WSP Group Canada, is developing the plan, and it wrote the vision statement and objectives after “extensive engagement with the community and with Council,” a city report states. That engagement included a public survey hosted through Connect Peterborough.

During the general committee meeting on April 19, Coun. Kemi Akapo asked if the results of that survey could be made public.

The City has released the raw data from public surveys before. Over 500 responses to the municipality’s 2021 budget survey were released in this spreadsheet, for example.

But in this case, Akapo was told no, the results couldn’t be released because some respondents shared information that could identify who they are. A freedom-of-information request would have to be made, Akapo was advised, which would allow city staff to review every single answer to see if they contain personal information that needs to be redacted before release.

“We do share information publicly,” commissioner of infrastructure and planning services Cynthia Fletcher said at the meeting, “but it’s in a compiled format.” In this case, that means that the third-party consultant reviews the survey results, identifies the key themes and prepares a summary report of the results that can be made public.

Peter Hewett, a member of the Peterborough Greenspace Coalition, isn’t satisfied with that, and calls the withholding of the survey results “alarming.”

In an opinion column he wrote and emailed to Peterborough Currents, Hewett acknowledges that “survey results alone do not get to dictate policy direction. And survey results alone do not reflect all of what the entire public thinks.” Still, he writes, “the information needs to be made public in a comprehensive and transparent manner.”

Last week, the transportation master plan’s vision statement and objectives came up for final approval at city council. At that meeting, Coun. Akapo again brought up the survey, and stated that a freedom-of-information request would be filed so that the results of the survey can be made public.

The initial fee to file an FOI request is five dollars, and the City is required to respond within 30 days. But if a thorough examination of records is required (and in this case, staff are suggesting that it would be) the deadline can be extended and additional fees can be charged.

Surveys conducted through Connect Peterborough played a significant role in another recent council decision: the cancelling of plans for a new gender-neutral change room at the Peterborough Sport and Wellness Centre.

In March, city council ordered staff to reopen the survey on the proposed PSWC renovations after opponents of the new change room complained that the original survey was misleading and not circulated widely enough.

A second survey was opened and apparently received thousands of submissions before it was closed in late April. Those results have yet to be released even in summary form. But council voted nonetheless on April 26 to cancel the proposed renovation to the change rooms.

Before that vote, Coun. Kim Zippel, who was supportive of the proposed gender-neutral change room, questioned why council would make a decision before first receiving the results of the survey it had ordered seeking public input on that decision.

Robert Gibson, a journalist with Trent University’s student press Arthur Newspaper, has informed the City he intends to file an FOI request to access the results of this survey if they are not publicly released.

Public consultation and engagement has certainly been made much more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. As our community reopens this summer and fall, hopefully the Connect Peterborough platform will be augmented with in-person events that allow for more dialogue and include people who don’t have internet access.

Even with the return of in-person events, these surveys will likely continue to be an important tool for facilitating public engagement.

That said, the survey takers don’t accurately represent the broader public, and so they can’t function like referendums. That’s okay — they don’t have to function like that.

But perhaps we ought to better articulate exactly how these survey results are supposed to inform decision-making, and how they can strengthen civic engagement.

I’m curious what you think of this topic. Do you feel the municipality has improved its public engagement recently? And how would you prefer your voice be heard by municipal decision makers? You can reply to this email to send us a message.

–Will Pearson

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Other stories to watch

  • Last week Premier Doug Ford announced a provincial paid sick leave program to reimburse employers for up to $200 per day for up to three days per worker for sick leave taken between April 19 and September 25. The proposal falls short of what many labour advocates and public health scientists have been calling for.
  • Peterborough Public Health has issued an alert about suspected drug poisonings. According to a media release, over the weekend paramedics responded to 21 opioid-related calls and there were 13 opioid-related emergency department visits. If you use drugs, PPH advises you to not use drugs alone. You should also carry naloxone and test your drug by using a small amount first. And if you witness an overdose, you should call 911, give naloxone, and stay with the person until help arrives.
  • The downtown farmers markets are back for the season. Both the Peterborough Regional Farmers’ Market (Saturdays) and the Peterborough Downtown Farmers’ Market (Wednesdays) are open in the courtyard of Peterborough Square until October with new regulations.
  • In the past few weeks, COVID vaccines were delivered to the city’s shelters. People experiencing homelessness are at a much higher risk of infection. The YES Shelter for Youth and Families posted this update on Facebook:

Thanks for reading! Take good care out there.

Ayesha Barmania
Co-publisher, Peterborough Currents

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