Rothenburger: Reaching out isn't hard to do

Mel Rothenburger / Kamloops Daily News
January 17, 2013 01:00 AM

On the surface they don't seem to have anything to do with one another, but City council's distress this week over an invitation to attend a private meeting with Ajax officials, and Coun. Arjun Singh's public-input session last Saturday, are part of the same malady quietly incubating in council chambers.

More properly stated, the first is a side effect of the affliction, while Singh's admirable outreach efforts are a possible cure.

Council didn't quite know what to do with the Ajax invite, eventually taking the novel step of drawing names from a mug to decide which of them would attend, while making sure it was few enough to keep it from being an official meeting. More like coffee with new acquaintances, I suppose.

During the last civic election, Donovan Cavers let it be known he and other candidates had been invited to just such a private meeting with Ajax, and that he'd declined. It became quite the issue, so when the company renewed the offer this week, council was naturally worried about what people would think.

Here's the thing - if they would all put as much effort into reaching out to the public as Singh does, they'd have a better handle on what people want.

With his Kamloops Idea Festival, Singh proved there's appetite, a hunger even, for a soapbox on which the city's future can be forged. Well over 100 people gave up their Saturday morning to be part of it. They were asked what Kamloops should look like in 10 years. So they talked about buses and parking, about a performing arts centre, zoning, chickens and, of course, Ajax but it was, primarily, an exercise in vision. Pens and pencils could barely keep up with the ideas spilling forth, and sticky notes quickly covered a big tack board.

The single weakness in Singh's "festival" is that it was like a dessert high in calories but low in protein. Because it was Arjun's baby, and not council's, there's no clout behind it.

He was kind enough to mention that he borrowed the concept from KamTalk, a day-long community conference I put together back in 2001. Several hundred attended that one, taking up the Interior Savings Centre arena and breakout rooms.

The difference in magnitude was due to the fact the 2001 council had bought in ahead of time. What a day it was, too. Every session was tracked and every idea tabulated in real time, and the consensus keynotes were then plugged directly into the City's new community plan. Those were heady times.

Of the current council, Cavers, Nancy Bepple and Tina Lange attended last Saturday. The rest didn't. Maybe they were busy, but they missed an opportunity. What a fine thing it would be if council were to collectively take on public engagement as a joyful duty, defining themselves not simply as community politicians, but as students of the political process. If they just said no to secret meetings with corporate bigwigs. If they figured out there's so much more to civic politics than drawing names from a hat, or mug.

Last Saturday morning was, as Singh put it, "a great conversation," "awesome" even, but it could be even better if his brand of civic leadership was embraced not just by a handful of his colleagues but by the entire council.

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