Pemberton fields calls from across Canada about its community engagement 

Interest in the way it communicates grows after visit from civic activist Meslin

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GLAD HANDING Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy welcomes Toronto activist Dave Meslin, who spoke at the village about public engagement in politics in May. Photo by Cathryn Atkinson

The Village of Pemberton is getting calls from cities and municipalities across Canada, all interested in knowing more about its successes in increasing public engagement.

The Village had the light shone on it by Toronto activist Dave Meslin, who was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Planning Institute of British Columbia (PIBC) in Harrison Hot Springs in May.

Meslin told delegates that Pemberton was to be commended for its communications style, which he described as clear and understandable, brief, visually engaging and positive. He was invited to speak in Pemberton following the PIBC conference and gave Mayor Jordan Sturdy the 2012 Dazzling Notice Award at his talk, a prize Meslin started to publicize Pemberton's successes and which he hopes will become an annual award.

Now the Village has received calls from the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the District of Squamish, and further afield from North Vancouver, Kamloops, Maple Ridge, Terrace, Nanaimo, and, wait for it, Waterloo, Ont.

"Pemberton is leading the way, and has shown how easy it can be to use good design practices to engage the public," Meslin said in an email interview.

"In a short period of two or three months they completely re-designed their development notices, transforming them into effective and attractive communication tools. Other municipalities can learn from their example."

Meslin's work in Toronto has been to challenge the powerful council there on a number of grassroots issues like cycling lanes and advertising in public parks. In the process, he developed strategies for residents to bring their concerns to elected representatives. He also recently created The Fourth Wall, a program to encourage councils to improve civic engagement and public participation.

Communication is about establishing "a human connection" between people or organizations or both, and Jill Brooksbank, communications co-coordinator for the VoP and Caroline Lamont, the Village's Manager of Development Services, spearheaded the drive for Pemberton.

"We were surprised at all the interest (created by Meslin). We have the 'small man complex' up here," said Lamont.

"I'm really proud of my work and if something is not right I want to hear about it. When the news is over managed it's hard to understand. I think 'What are you afraid of?' I feel that if people are complaining you can learn something."

Instead of seeming like the civic equivalent of watching paint dry, public notices can instead be an essential piece in the information puzzle – but it takes creativity and a willingness to edit out the baffling jargon.  

Lamont said she attended the PIBC conference and heard Meslin single out her community, and arranged for his talk at Pemberton Library.

"I thought when I heard about Meslin 'that was where we wanted to go.' The Village doesn't know everything and it's good to have open government and not pay lip service,'" Lamont said.

"We planners aren't known for our ad campaigns and for getting the message out. Some communications departments are about controlled messages but we think we have nothing to hide and we want to hear from people."

This openness in community engagement has also impacted how the council conducts itself generally, and has led to Coffee with the Mayor for adults and, most recently, Popsicles with the Mayor for children – a chance for Pembertonians to speak to Mayor Jordan Sturdy and ask questions.

Popsicles with the Mayor was particularly popular; Sturdy ended up handing out over 100 ice treats at the village's skateboard park. The youngsters, aged four to 11, came up with interesting ideas for the community, including the creation of a children's art gallery and a request to increase the size of One Mile Park.

"Popsicles with the mayor is great because next time the child is feeling slightly more empowered about talking to us," said Lamont. "My kids, who are 12 to 16 now, how do you get them interested? How do you get their friends interested? Adults, even?"

Now they plan to take it further. Brooksbank said that an informal communications discussion group is being set up between the Sea to Sky communities, including Squamish, Whistler, the Village of Pemberton, the SLRD and Lillooet, with the first meeting planned for August.

Gary Williams, the director of Communications and Marketing at the City of Waterloo, a community of 100,000, said they were working on a time to talk to Brooksbank and Lamont about their public engagement successes.

"I did email their communications department to ask about the unique approach they took with Public Notices, as I thought it was an interesting way to publish those... as it's something we are looking at," he said.

Meslin said that Pemberton's small size makes it easier to take these ideas forward quickly.

"For a larger city, like Vancouver or Toronto, the process would definitely take longer," he said. "There are more staff, more lawyers, more departments.... The beauty of Pemberton is that because their administration is so small, they can implement change very quickly. That said, these changes are within reach of any municipality.

He added that he planned to continue the Dazzling Notice Award in 2013, and encourage other communities to follow Pemberton's lead.

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