Communication. Co-operation. Collaboration.
These concepts turned up a lot in Morinville council chambers last term as councillors sought to improve how they supported the community and worked with volunteers.
Councillors bemoaned sparse attendance at open houses and wondered if there wasn’t a better way to hear from residents than Facebook. They also sought ways to support community groups, which the October 2019 community needs assessment report showed were struggling to find volunteers, space, and money.
The Gazette asked mayoral candidates Barry Turner, Simon Boersma, and Shane Ladouceur this week how they would reconnect town council with the community.
Turner said community groups flagged three main challenges when he met with them last term: fundraising, volunteer retention, and promotion of events. Council worked to identify gaps in the non-profit sector (such as the Midstream Support Society’s need for a new home) and is now compiling a contact database that groups can use to share resources and find volunteers.
“One of the key and most fundamental roles the Town of Morinville plays is being a real hub for facilitation,” Turner said, whether that be through providing staff, funding, space, or simply a forum through which people can work together.
If elected, Turner said he hopes to resume his roundtable talks with community groups to find ways to address challenges volunteer groups face — talks that had been derailed by the pandemic. He also hopes to hold more online or virtual town halls, which had proved effective during the pandemic.
“One of the options I’d certainly like to explore is the concept of a volunteer pool,” he said, where the town could act as a clearinghouse to pair volunteers with volunteer groups.
Community groups need operational space, and a community hub building that houses Midstream, the food bank, and other groups under one roof could be the solution, Turner said. While he is cautious about the cost of such a building, he said council should help bring it about by seeking grants and helping groups pool resources to build it.
Boersma said council and administration have to change their approach to volunteers. He cited a recent case from this past summer where administration did not consult with the Rotary Club (of which he is a member) before moving to remove washrooms the group installed in Rotary Park.
“We learned of [the potential removal] through the newspaper,” Boersma said.
“Is that collaboration? Is that communication even there?”
Boersma said volunteers want to help, but don’t want to be shut out of the decision-making process — something council and administration tend to do with their habit of taking over community projects once they get involved in them.
“Civic engagement means we’re going to participate together to move this forward.”
In the case of the Rotary Park washrooms, Boersma said administration should have talked with Rotary first to work out a solution. Council also has to free up money in its budget so it can fund projects brought forward by the community instead of saying “no” all the time. These measures would make life less frustrating for residents and reduce volunteer burnout.
While the town has a Community Cultural Centre, Boersma said many groups can’t afford to rent it and have to take their meetings and business-to-business to St. Albert instead.
“We do need a meeting space of some kind, but we can’t make it not affordable to the clubs that are here.”
Boersma supports the idea of a community hall or hub and said the town should talk to area groups to rally the funds needed to build it.
When asked about concerns facing the volunteer community, Ladouceur said, “I haven’t heard of any concerns much at all,” adding that volunteerism would probably pick up again post-pandemic.
“Everyone wants to help.”
Ladouceur said he supports the idea of a community hub.
“There’s quite a bit of land here in Morinville that’s empty and stuff and I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
When it comes to improving council connections with residents, Ladouceur said the town should use polls on its website to give residents a direct say in policy decisions.
“Just ask a question and get a poll of the townspeople. That’s true democracy.”
Ladouceur said council should also better promote its website as a source of information.
“Maybe we need a billboard or something. I see Rednex [Bar and Grill] has one,” he said, referring to a restaurant in Morinville.
Boersma called online polls “frustrating,” as they are often weighted toward a certain outcome. He prefers in-person engagement.
To improve communication with residents, Boersma is calling for a ward-like system where each councillor would act as the central point of contact for a specific neighbourhood. Council should fund regular in-neighbourhood meetings to meet residents in person and consider an app to provide information on town services (such as waste collection schedules).
Turner said social media helps citizen engagement, but not everyone has access to Facebook, and consultation requires equal access for all. He said council should set out a framework of how residents can reach council and administration and what responses they should expect.
“One of the best ways to find out what’s important to people is to meet them where they are,” Turner said.
Turner committed to holding in-neighbourhood council meetings to speak directly with residents if elected — something that was in the works last term prior to the pandemic.
Turner said online polls can help with engagement, but only if they are secure and limited to actual Morinville residents.
Next week, The Gazette asks the candidates about regional collaboration.