Here's one definition of a town hall meeting: "A town hall meeting is an informal public meeting. Everybody in a community is invited to attend, voice their opinions, and hear the responses from public figures and elected officials about shared subjects of interest, although attendees rarely vote on an issue."
That comes from the usual source, Wikipedia. So in what universe does a town hall meeting limit audience numbers, require participants to register, feature lengthy presentations by the sponsoring corporation, and limit the time for questions and answers?
But are the meetings being held by KGHM Ajax really supposed to be town-hall style meetings?
Yes, they are. Back in January, I received a response from the Environmental Assessment Office, which was struggling with criticism over its game plan for public consultation.
My question was, "Why will there be no town hall or public forum as part of the environmental assessment process?"
This was the answer:
"There will be town hall sessions, but they will be held at a different time than the Feb. 6 and 7 (open house) sessions. The EAO has directed KGHM to develop town hall style sessions which will allow the people of Kamloops and stakeholders to ask questions of the panelists. These will be conducted by KGHM….
"We understand the concerns and sensitivities, that's why EAO has built in a number of extra measures to communicate and connect to the public and stakeholders on this proposal. This public consultation process is more exhaustive than any other EA project in the Province… EAO has ordered KGHM to develop a Community Consultation Plan which will include a public engagement strategy and a series of public meetings/ forums where concerned citizens can ask questions about the proposed mine. A key element of this plan will also be a strategy to allow increased access to project related information."
That gave me hope the EAO was going to work with KGHM Ajax to come up with an effective public consultation process.
Four months later we have this strange interpretation of town hall meetings, we have closed-door community advisory group meetings, and no assurance that KGHM Ajax will embrace anything near to full disclosure on the mine impacts. Within this vacuum, a debate over whether or not to build a balsa-wood model somehow takes centre stage.
The issue is this: we have a proponent that is concerned about managing the message, and an environmental agency that is nervous of trusting the public to behave itself at public-input sessions (yet claims it will enforce a requirement for town hall meetings).
Town hall meetings are the antithesis of controlled messaging. In their purest form, they are a no-holds-barred opportunity for the public to ask questions and demand answers.
Here's a quote from another website, Wisegeek: "The structure of a town hall meeting is usually very loose. Typically, officials sit in the front, facing the group, and the group is seated in rows. When the meeting is opened, people in the group can ask questions or bring issues up, and the officials and other members of the group may respond. When heated issues arise, the town hall meeting may become less orderly, but usually members of the group are capable of policing each other to ensure that everyone is heard."
That's what we need.