There has been a welcome opening within the realms of the Municipality of North Grenville, a move towards normalisation, as it is called in Cold War terms. After a season of very bad public relations crises, the NG Council and staff have begun a process that can only be welcomed by all residents of the area. Steps have been taken to communicate better with the people of North Grenville, and that is both a brave and a timely initiative. It began with the expansion of the responsibilities of the Deputy Clerk, Katie Valentin to include the job of Communications Director. This has led to more information being distributed to the media, and therefore to the public, about the activities of Council.
The Municipality has redesigned their web site to make it more accessible and more informative than it was previously. This is essential in this internet age, when so many people get their information from social media and online sources. People expect to be able to access necessary information from their homes and offices, without having to press many, many buttons on their phones before finding the appropriate recorded message. The new web site is another step in the move towards greater transparency.
Last week, the first Mayor’s Media Briefing was held, a new development in this community, at which the Mayor, the CAO and the Communications Director sat down with representatives of the local media to answer questions and discuss issues. Councillor Jim Bertram sat in on the session, which was like the first hesitant steps in a dance we had all looked forward to for some time. Relations between the media on the one hand and politicians and staff on the other are always like a dance: though this was more like a stately gavotte than an intimate waltz. Very far indeed from a cosy tango.
As CAO Brian Carré said, both sides need each other and serve the public in doing so. Although one reporter disagreed, I fully supported Brian’s comments; it is important that the Municipality communicate effectively with the people they represent and serve. It is equally important that the media report accurately and fully what is happening in municipal circles. This is something the Times has been preaching for a long time, and, as I said, it was a brave and timely initiative by the municipality.
Like any dance, of course, there are pitfalls, the rules, the movements need to be understood on all sides. The media recognise that they will be told what the municipality wants them to know, and nothing more. The municipality need to know that the media should report, perhaps, more than just a party line. And, of course, the media will try not to give their competitors any advantage either, even if that means some parties try to exclude others from the process.
What does this new dance mean for the public? It has to be seen as a positive step forward, a move towards meeting the commitments made by candidates during the last election to be more transparent and to communicate more fully with residents on the issues which affect them. It means that they will, hopefully and if we do our job, be better informed and better equipped to understand and evaluate what is being done on their behalf in the corridors and offices of the Municipal Centre.
For Council and staff, it should mean less indignation (if that is not too mild a term) at what they read in the media, at least when it comes to accuracy and fairness. Reporters cannot be faulted for getting the facts wrong, if those facts are not made available to them in the first place. Now we have a duty to live up to this new system’s potential, and that is a duty we at the Times have always taken seriously.
Behind all of this is the principle expressed in the old saying: “tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner”, to understand all is to forgive all. There is no doubt that it is easier to forgive when we understand what was involved in the action or decision we find objectionable. But, of course, to understand all is not to agree with all, either. What officials and politicians will find is that the media and the public may now be able to understand all, or as much as they will be told, but that will not inevitably mean the public will agree with all, or accept all.
In the end, that will be the acid test of this new system of openness and communication. When the media report negatively on what has been communicated to them, will the communication continue, will the dance slow down or stop altogether?
This is a brave new world in North Grenville, and those who have brought it about are to be congratulated and their commitment honoured. It will be fun watching as we all learn together the steps of this new dance.