Hmm. This week, Rossland city council has been working on its communication skills on several fronts. On Monday, Council issued its first glossy newsletter this week (bye trees!) and is considering a monthly column in the Trail Times (bye forest!). There are also plans to put in place a public input period at the beginning of each Council meeting to “allow a more informal exchange of information to take place”. That’s a very formal way of phrasing an invitation to ‘get down’ with our civic government!
Unfortunately the first two of these methods have been tried before and neither resulted in any meaningful exchanges or forestalled any of the bitterness and rancour that has in recent years tainted our local politics. As for the third, it’ll be interesting to see how many people show up at 7:00 on a Monday evening just to ‘rap’ with council. All in all, not much of a change from the past. Most likely, the newsletter and column will appear sporadically and continue to contain such gems as “Plans are underway to finalize the 2009 budget” and “These very successful events showcase our civic pride and exemplify the Rossland Spirit”. Pshaw! This isn’t communication: it’s boosterism. And while boosterism may be fine in its place, it’s not democracy. If anything, it might even be the opposite of democracy, when you think about it.
Here at the Telegraph, we’re beginning to think that council just doesn’t understand what communication means. So we’ll help. Webster’s says that communication means “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals” (our italics). We think the word ‘exchange’ is what’s problematic here. In the 21st century, in a well-educated, engaged small town, there are many more meaningful and useful options council might consider exploring.
When we offered the new council blog space on the Telegraph (along with a ready-made, 1500 person strong audience) last year, they didn’t say yes and they didn’t say no and they didn’t do anything. Councillor Kathy Moore spoke to us of council’s desire to “speak with one voice”, which is an interesting way of putting the matter.
In a democracy, do people or their leaders ‘speak with one voice’? Should they? Or should they speak with (in the present case) 4000 voices, each adding its piece to the admittedly frustrating jigsaw puzzle of human communication? Or is ‘one voice’ the voice of a way of thinking that is decidedly different from the democratic way?
What we have gleaned from this council’s attempts to communicate so far is a desire on their part to broadcast information in a one-way stream. To print glossy flyers touting their own successes for the recycling centre, to produce columns that will be read by a (very) few and then tossed. Of course, there’s always an invitation to phone or email attached to these things, but we all know that doesn’t add up to engagement on any meaningful level. ‘One voice’ is PR. ‘One voice’ is spin. ‘One voice’ is anti-democratic. We don’t need that here.
Any information council will offer through columns or flyers can already be found – without spin and in more detail – in any of the three papers that currently cover city politics. What, then, is their function other than to allow council to say, ‘see, we did something’?
Now that’s not all that’s been going on, of course. Several councillors (including, in all fairness, Ms. Moore) have taken the time to participate in discussions here at the Telegraph, which is a great start. But council as a whole should be doing more.
Councillors should be hosting blogs (here or on their own web site); they should be hosting monthly coffee nights at the Fire Hall or some other venue where they can get together informally and discuss the issues facing our town with…the people who elected them. Once a month, two councillors per time. That adds up to three or four evenings a year. They should make every effort to engage and take advantage of the possibilities inherent in small town life in the digital era.
There’s a chance here, as we head into a time when we’ll need to marshal all our resources just to survive as a community, to get right back to Athens, right back to the core of what democracy is: a conversation, not a proclamation.
We also think council would be happier operating that way – thinking outside of the old-style transmission box – and we think the residents of Rossland would be too. It’s amazing what happens when issues get aired as widely as possible: all the bedbugs of venom and rumour get blown away and all parties are left with a clear view of the issues. Once this is the case, solutions are generally pretty easy to find.
Council: we Rosslanders are high maintenance. There’s no getting around it, so get used to it. We’re educated and engaged and if you fail to engage us we’ll moan and whine and make your lives a living hell.
And that, surprisingly enough, is how it’s supposed to be. Hmm.