Pebble in a shoe

The best people for politicians (and editorial writers) to hear from are people who disagree with their direction.

For starters, it begins a conversation. This essential ingredient is critical for most of our social and political engagements and it was sadly missing from the Haldi Road Women's Recovery Centre debate. By the time the two sides spoke to each other, they had already been shouting at one another online and through the media. Moderate voices asking for compromise were pushed aside and anyone with an opinion was forced to declare their view through the narrow prism of whether they were "for" or "against" the project.

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The recovery centre was (and still is) a great idea, led by good people passionate about helping vulnerable women turn their lives around.

The problem is they presumed the neighbours would like them and their wonderful idea. They went straight to local government for approval, rather than getting what in the Northern Gateway era is now known as "social licence." Meeting with the neighbours in advance, hearing, addressing and acting on concerns, including the surrounding residents on the plan and demonstrating a willingness to compromise could have prevented so much sound and fury, sparing everyone the public hearings, the lawsuits and the waste of time, energy and money.

The chosen location was excellent from a geographical standpoint, away from the temptations of the city centre but still close enough to the rest of Prince George for staff and residents to access city services. The proponents made it a horrible location by not consulting with area residents from the very beginning and then dismissing the residents and their concerns as heartless NIMBY radicals. The furious and increasingly strident residents made it a horrible location with their holier-than-thou opposition.

There were no winners.

Prince George still doesn't have a facility that even Haldi Road neighborhood residents agree is needed for this city and this region. The proponents, the residents and local government spent a lot of money fighting one other. Nothing came of it except mistrust and lingering resentment.

Yet maybe the best community engagement possible couldn't have brought area residents to back the recovery centre in their neighbourhood. Conversation and negotiation are the path to compromise and solutions, which is the most desirable goal, but continuing dissent does not mean all is lost. For elected officials and others in positions of power, that dissent still has value because it provides ongoing accountability. If the recovery centre had gone ahead at the former Haldi Road school, those dissenters would have made sure everything was done by the book, which is not a bad thing.

That's where Shirley Bond's comments to the North Central Local Government Association's annual meeting last week in Prince George were disappointing. Bond told the delegates of mayors and councillors from across the region that they need to put aside their disagreements and speak as one voice for the province's best interests. To be blunt, worrying about what's good for Victoria is not what the mayors of Prince George, Burns Lake, Mackenzie and Quesnel get paid to do. While there are initiatives that all four mayors can agree to work on together to benefit their communities, it is also the job of those mayors to inform Bond, Mike Morris, John Rustad and Coralee Oakes, as the regional MLAs, when Victoria makes decisions not in the immediate interests of their communities.

Most importantly, however, local governments play a pivotal role in both advocating for their communities to the provincial and federal governments while also holding the area's elected officials of those governments accountable. Bond has praised Dr. Bert Kelly for being a pebble in the shoe for her and local MLAs for more and better health care spending in Prince George and Northern Health.

Local governments are also a pebble in the shoe, particularly for the provincial government, and that's a role neighbourhood residents can also play for their local mayor and council. Disagreeing is fine, as long as there is talking, listening, flexibility and respect. Haldi Road is a sad example of what happens when that doesn't occur.

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