Eganville – As North Algona Wilberforce Township council proceeds into the 2021 budget deliberations, they will use their recently completed Strategic Plan to assist them when it comes time to prioritize projects versus the long-term objectives laid out in the comprehensive document.
At last Tuesday’s council meeting, three of the four councillors voted in favour of accepting the plan and a Strategic Plan tool kit, a second document designed to provide a blueprint for council and township staff on how to engage the community in order to involve as many residents as possible in the process.
Although Councillor Janet Reiche-Schoenfeldt agreed there were several key points in the plan she says will help the township in long-term planning in several areas including recreation, tourism and environmental stewardship, she did not vote in favour of adopting it and the accompanying tool kit because she said it fell short of its main objective.
“There is no way in good conscience that I could vote in favour of what we received tonight for the simple reason it is a very complicated and a hard-to-follow document,” she told the Leader following the meeting. “If I sat down with residents at a coffee table and said let’s get to work on this, I don’t think the average ratepayer would even know where to begin because it is a complex tool kit. I have been involved since the beginning and I have a hard time figuring out how to use it. So for us to engage our community members needs to be made in an easier way, and in my opinion, this tool kit makes it hard to do that.”
The plan, entitled “Live small. Think Big. Transforming survive into thrive,” was completed by Chela Breckon, the owner of With Chela Inc. She developed the plan through a series of interviews, focus groups, surveys and workshops over the last year and said much of that consultation involved speaking directly with residents in focus groups.
Along the way, she discovered a disconnect between residents and township staff and elected, but she pointed out it can be corrected.
Lack of Communication
“I met with a number of residents and the one thing that really impressed me was how many people are willing to volunteer in your township because they care about making this a great place to live,” she said. “But the reality is people don’t believe their voices have been heard. So we have to address that pre-existing condition because there is a history in this community of distrust of leadership and we have to understand that your organization has an opportunity to address this and improve that relationship.
“I cannot pronounce to you enough how often open, transparent and accessible communication was brought up among your residents. So the section of listening and learning was brought up in your Mission Statement. That is something you all need to learn to live and die by in every initiative you might entertain, regardless of whether it’s contained in this plan. Creating a culture of open communication requires time, it requires tools and it requires capacity of learning within this organization.”
She said one of the challenges facing resident volunteers is the fact they tend to work in silos. She listed off groups such as the property associations, the food bank and others who all want to contribute to the betterment of the area, but they feel isolated and not appreciated or heard.
That is the reason the tool kit lists six major projects, one of them being “Walk the Talk.”
“That is why “Walk The Talk” is listed as one of the priorities in your plan and community engagement will help produce positive results for the township as a whole,” she added.
Councillor Says Plan Too Complicated
A major part of Coun. Reiche-Schoenfeldt’s critique was the length and content of the plan’s Mission Statement and the colour coding made it difficult to sit down with the average resident. She fears it may appear too complicated and instead of promoting increased community engagement, it will turn them away.
“My concern is when people are reading it we all know it’s an important document and it is going to guide us for 10 years or more, but I think it’s important that people are easily able to access it and not get bogged down thinking about whether or not this goal was met and does it colour code with that one and so on,” she said. “I am just thinking about this being on a coffee table and someone picks it up and will they be able to easily make sense of it and go ‘aha…this is something that we can get to work on’,” she said.
Ms. Breckon completed her overview of the tool kit by reminding council the document is their version of the best practices across the world. She said strategic plans are developed by organizations on a global scale and her goal was to pull in all the current trends and produce a plan that reflected the community and where it is going over the next few years.
At that point Coun. Reiche-Schoenfeldt asked a pointed question in regards to what makes NAW unique and how that branding is contained in the plan.
“You have the most interesting combination of rural diversity,” she said. “You have the Algonquins First Nations, the Mennonite community, the traditional agricultural community and you have artists, growers, and this is a rural mosaic,” she said. “This is a chief asset that many rural communities just don’t have and one thing that is happening right now is these groups are all coming together and what
you have here is a sort of rural multicuralism seen through a rural lens.”
Plan Does Not Reflect Majority of Residents
Following the meeting, Coun. Reiche-Schoenfeldt said one of her biggest concerns about the final document is the small sample of residents consulted that produced the six major projects outlined to help the township prosper over the coming years.
“My concern is that the sample size was fairly small and do these people really reflect the feelings of the majority of residents,” she said. “I fear this is a plan that could be used by any rural municipality and the plan itself is really confusing and you tell me if it is easy to understand. I was really enthusiastic at the very beginning because she said it is always hard to get residents to fill in a survey or be part of a focus group but we were told getting as many residents involved was very important.
“Everyone gets a tax bill so why wasn’t the survey sent out with that. Not everyone is on social media or our webpage or the newspaper but pretty much all our residents pay taxes. Maybe I am unrealistic but I thought there would be more people involved. I really thought it would be tailor-made to North Algona Wilberforce, but the tool kit really doesn’t tell us how to actually do a project.”
She also cited the statistics of who took part in the consultation.
Coun. Reiche-Schoenfeldt said Ms. Breckon met with 26 businesses, seven focus groups (56 people), 80 surveys were followed up, 30 separate youth were consulted along with the six councillors and 12 other individuals.
“I am not an expert in math but when you walk into our council chambers and you see the sign that says there are 3,461 voters in our township, then that means less than five per cent of our population were consulted to produce our Strategic Plan meant to guide us over the coming years,” she said. “I am not criticizing the whole plan, but what I am saying is I don’t think it barrels right down and represents the entire township now, and moving forward.”
The Strategic Plan is available for public viewing and can be downloaded from the township’s website.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader