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It’s the nature of city government to want control. That’s not always a bad thing, but how much control is needed in City discussions with residents?

The Stratford City website has been a bone of contention for  years. Posts are sometimes unclear. Things are hard to find. Things get lost, or go unnoticed. There’s a lack of trust. They keep trying to make improvements, and some of these efforts are successful. The latest improvement is “Engage Stratford,” which looks promising.

This project seems to be a well-intentioned step to encourage citizen participation, and is a result of the provincial requirement that the City must find “innovative” ways to communicate with citizens regarding the review of our Official Plan. The software itself was used in 2018 by Stratford social services, in an engagement trial.

Asked whether this new programme will actually “engage Stratford,” Mike Beitz was optimistic about participation, citing the number of people who don’t want to deal with unpleasant reactions on social media. Engage Stratford will be moderated by the media company Bang the Table, and it will be independent of the City of Stratford. Moderators do not edit comments and only remove comments if they are inappropriate or off-topic, use offensive language, or involve personal, discriminatory, or libellous attacks. So far, however, these comments will only be seen by City councillors and staff.

The process is billed by the city as a “virtual public open house.” Projects are posted for citizen review, and there is one open now: the Transportation Master Plan. If you follow the link, you can watch a recorded presentation, read the project timeline, review City documents on the project, and respond to the survey.There is also an FAQ file, and you can even leave your comments on the transportation plan map or send an email question. It’s a pretty comprehensive and well-laid-out page, but it lacks the community feel of a traditional town hall meeting. You have the feeling of being in a bubble. You won’t know what others in your community are saying. You can’t judge the mood of the community. You can’t be inspired by someone else’s question to ask a question of your own. It’s very controlled.

It may not be possible to replicate a town-hall ambiance through an online interface, but this website could do better. Mike Beitz indicates that there are other components of the Engage programme that could be included. There’s an idea board, for example, which allows users to “vote up” good ideas. There’s also a forum component that should allow some debate between citizens. So far, these components aren’t being used.

But it’s a start. And as always, it’s really up to us to tell City Hall what we want. We can complain about lack of trust between the City and its residents, but in the end we have to go out and have another kick at that football.  We’re all in this together, and we’ve got to learn to work together.


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