On speaking your truth to power

I've been following with interest the Calgary Southway controversy: Mayor Nenshi's decision to take public engagement for this process online, and to stop the open houses. It's unfortunate, but I can understand why the City of Calgary has made this decision. It seems that some people are unwilling to express concerns and disagreement about a project without personal attacks. I observe that sometimes people who are uncomfortable with confrontation (and there are many such people) have to work themselves into a rage just to get past their discomfort and be able to express disagreement. This leads to unproductive situations.

So here are a few hints on how to effectively provide feedback on a municipal plan or proposal with which you may disagree:

1. Make sure you have the facts. Don't try to get them from Letters to the Editor. Do your research, look at drawings, read proposals, understand applicable bylaws. If this seems daunting, do it with a group - each take a part of the research and share your results with each other. Ask questions of administration about points you don't understand from your research: "Please show me where in the bylaw this is permitted?" "Where will the four corners of this building be?" "What are the safety regulations for this playground?" "Where is the legal road allowance on the survey?"

2. Decide on what you like and what concerns you about what you've learned. Make notes on these key points. Don't bother with anything that is retroactive -- not liking something that is allowed in a bylaw won't make that bylaw inapplicable to this project. By all means, lobby to get it changed in the future, but bylaws that are in place today govern today's projects.

3. Decide what would have to change about the proposal to make it acceptable to you. Frame these concerns in the form of questions to be solved working together: "How could we mitigate the traffic flows?" "How can we ensure that litter from the site is appropriately handled?" "How can we protect view lines?"

4. Go to open houses or online feedback sessions with these questions, or contact your councillor(s) or mayor and ask them how to work together to solve the issues.

5. If, after all that, you don't get the outcome you want, don't say "They didn't listen", unless they really didn't! Perhaps they listened, but they didn't agree. That's different.

6. Take it up a level. The time to express your concerns about a development is NOT just before the shovels go into the ground. Pay attention when your community is revising its community master plan or transportation master plan or land use bylaw. Look at the sections that will affect you in the future, even the distant future, and lobby for the changes you'd like to see. Getting involved and staying involved in the planning and regulation of your community is an effective way to make sure your voice is heard.

7. Take it up two levels. If you don't see your point of view represented on your local council, then it's up to you to get it to the table. Find a candidate who is of like mind, and support him/her actively. Or BE a candidate. Being an elected decision-maker, at the council table, is THE most effective way to make sure your voice is heard.