Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Municipalities face new challenges

Shifts in technology enable citizen activism

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The City of Winnipeg likely wasn't surprised when reporters and citizens wanted to know why their fire and paramedic chief disappeared off the civic payroll recently. After all, Reid Douglas was a veteran employee and tied up in an audit of fire-hall construction and land deals that link higher up the civic ladder.

Those are the makings of a controversy likely to bring even sane people to the keyboard to add their opinions to the online comments section of media outlets.

But what was far more interesting -- and part of a growing trend -- is what happened a couple of weeks earlier and an hour north in the tiny Village of Dunnottar near Winnipeg Beach.

The beach community (population 700 in the winter) pulled out 200 people to protest the province's plan to amalgamate municipalities with populations under 1,000. And the community won -- the province backed down.

The planned legislation would have forced Dunnottar to merge with the rural municipality of St. Andrews. Residents -- not local politicians -- led the charge and argued the forced merger didn't take into account that in the summer their community swells to between 2,000 and 4,000 cottagers.

But what the legislators really didn't take into account is a growing trend of community activism in rural and small municipalities unlike anything the local village reeves and town councillors have seen before.

In the past, a municipal politician in a small community knew he was in trouble if his house phone rang five time on the same issue with calls from the local butcher, baker, neighbour and volunteer fire chief. Now, he and his fellow councillors may not even know opposition is serious until a website pops up opposed to their latest initiative or they are flooded with angry emails from people they've never heard of before.

This new experience is a clue to what the future will look like for any entrepreneurs wanting to do business in small communities. If you're thinking of building or expanding in rural areas, where in the past you found getting a zoning variance was smooth sailing, then read on. Times are a-changing.

Four things are making the scrutiny seem more heightened than what elected officials or developers in smaller communities may be used to:

1. The most obvious change is the availability and convenience of electronic communication tools that move information further and faster then ever before -- with no guarantee of its accuracy.

When anyone can create a website, Facebook and Twitter account quickly and when everyone has hundreds of email addresses at their fingertips, it doesn't take long for a member of the public to create an opposition campaign overnight.

2. The second factor is a shift in demographics that sees more and more baby boomers retiring. They're educated and spent most of their careers working with technology. They are retired CEOs, accountants, lawyers and journalists, with a lot of time on their hands.

It's probably most surprising for reeves in cottage country -- such as Dunnottar. The city folks that came out for a few weeks every year are now making their cottages their home and making council motions their business.

3. The third challenge is most municipal governments are woefully behind the times when it comes to using communication tools. They often fail to see the connection between getting citizen support for a major initiative and having informed the community of that initiative well in advance. Nowadays, if there is a vacuum in information, it gets filled faster than a rumour circulates at the town coffee shop.

4. And, if a local government once felt fine just ignoring pleas for information, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) has made that position a lot more uncomfortable. Most citizen groups are aware of FIPPA and know how to use it.

Anecdotally, the Manitoba ombudsman's office has noticed a difference as more and more citizens and their lawyers use FIPPA to access municipal documents. The ombudsman actually investigated 12 municipalities last year on how well they used or abused their duties under the legislation.

In fact, the ombudsman's office has even created a very nicely detailed road map specifically for municipalities on how to stay on the right side of the FIPPA legislation.

Not surprisingly, the Handbook on Fairness for Manitoba Municipal Leaders echoes what a good public relations person would advise. In short, communicate early and often.

Shirley Muir makes her home in a small Manitoba city and is president of the PRHouse.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 B9

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