Tempers flare at City Hall over economic development strategy
A City of Merritt draft Economic Development Strategy presentation last Tuesday was met with conflicting views among several councillors and members of the public over the intended scope of the document.
The councillors, and two men who stood up in the gallery to make their voices heard, slammed the document by calling it a far cry from the report that was requested last summer.
The majority of complaints claimed the plan is vague and lacks public input into its creation. But as other councillors, city administration and Mayor Susan Roline pointed out, documents such as these are typically a framework, with more detailed planning coming later.
“We are giving the public a lot of opportunity to be involved in this,” Roline said. “You need a draft plan that can evolve with public input. We will have the engagement and then the plan will evolve into something that is operable.”
Councillors Mike Goetz and Dave Baker said anyone is able to attend public consultation periods to voice their opinions.
But the mayor and councillors seemed to be ignored, as the same criticisms continued to be raised throughout the nearly two-hour meeting.
Coun. Alastair Murdoch likened the report to previous initiatives that he said the public wasn’t consulted about, such as a Merritt branding strategy that pegged the town as the Country Music Capital of Canada.
“I struggle with going with this document to the community because it says that we already have made up our minds,” he said. “In my mind we should go to the community and then ask the experts. Otherwise, the community goes, ‘Well these people are experts,’ and they go and they mutter and mutter, and down the road that muttering gets worse.”
Coun. Kurt Christopherson agreed, saying the public should have been consulted prior to writing the strategy.
“Regardless of what the public can do, they have it in their minds what could be accepted,” he said. “Before we even get to the [public portion] we should demonstrate that we were listening to other people.”
Overarching reports such as these are typically quickly approved as information by the Committee of the Whole in municipalities throughout the country before they are tweaked by council. (Both the Committee of the Whole and council are made up entirely of councillors and the mayor.)
Economic Development Manager James Umpherson said the report was completed to a standard applied throughout Canada.
“The intent of the report was to provide a framework for city council to understand what the document was about, rather than expert knowledge and critical assessment,” he said. “And then once we see that it is something that the City of Merritt wants, then we can get feedback and discussion with those outside agencies.”
As part of the draft proposal, Umpherson outlined a public online questionnaire, which includes a series of closed- and open-ended questions. Interviews are also scheduled with community and business leaders, education representatives, aboriginal people, education institutions, non profits and community volunteers. Provincial and federal association stakeholders are also slated for inclusion. Engagement workshops are also scheduled with youths and representatives from other demographics. Those consultations are scheduled for April, May and June.
But according to Ron Sanders, who left his seat in the gallery to address council and administration, Umpherson hasn’t done his job.
“I think I could get someone to cut and past those comments for $5,000,” he said. “I’m talking about the downtown focus and tourism. The report is full of weather and age statistics that are available everywhere. I don’t see anything about tourism in this report.”
The document contains 32 references to tourism.
Merritt’s chief administrative officer, Matt Noble, said, “People who are criticizing the document should read it first. I can compare [the scope] of this document to be consistent with that of much larger cities within the province of British Columbia, and [Umpherson] has done his job.”
In an interview after the meeting, Coun. Goetz said Sanders’ comments were uncalled for.
“It’s really not up to the public to come in and make statements such as that and attack the man’s character, and when the character of [city staff] is being attacked, so is the character of council, because we hired the man to do the job under our direction,” he said. “Not only did [Umpherson] have to put up with it, so did council, and it was uncalled for.”
Goetz went on to say Umpherson’s report was exactly what council requested last summer, and despite the criticisms, even among councillors, “Everybody sitting up there asked him to do exactly what he presented.”
Committee of the Whole eventually voted unanimously to accept the draft as information. Council will discuss the document at their regular meeting today (Tuesday), at which time they can request changes. Council will also vote on whether to appoint an economic development committee to provide further input on the document.
The draft Economic Development Strategy is available here.