To blog or not to blog

Note: My comments in this blog regarding PlanSJ are mine alone as a citizen and Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) member, and are not intended to represent the views of the CAC as a whole.

There’s been a good discussion going on regarding CAC members blogging on PlanSJ issues. In general, I think the CAC is in consensus that individual committee members should feel free to engage with and communicate with the public, whether through social media, blogging or other channels.

However, there have been concerns expressed by some CAC members:

  • Dissenting opinions from different CAC members might confuse the public about what PlanSJ is trying to do.
  • CAC members speaking on their own about PlanSJ must make it clear that an opinion is theirs alone, and not the position of the CAC as a whole.
  • Confidentiality may be an issue. Some of the inputs the CAC receives may be considered private communications. There must be an assumption of confidentiality unless that confidentiality is waived by the originator or the communication is already in the public domain.

A specific point of discussion has been my response to the Board of Trade earlier this week, which is why I raised the issue of public communication and blogging at the latest CAC meeting. There were several criticisms by another CAC member (see Facebook) of my Board of Trade response:

  • That my blog entry was more an attack than a rebuttal.
  • That it isn’t appropriate to single out a specific stakeholder for criticism when other stakeholders have also expressed similar views, even if that stakeholder was the only one to put its feedback in the public domain.
  • That the CAC’s approach and language should always be constructive, and never confrontational.

Those criticisms are worth consideration and there was a useful debate during the CAC meeting.

My position on this is as follows.

At the time I posted the blog entry, I hadn’t seen the other inputs mentioned in the Facebook discussion linked above. (And I’m still not certain I’ve seen everything the other CAC member is referring to.) Regardless, the change in my response would have been minor, and my post still stands.

However, it’s important that I clarify why my response this week was directed to the Board of Trade specifically:

  1. Other stakeholders voiced concerns similar to some of the concerns that the Board of Trade identified, but those stakeholders were more balanced and had taken more considered positions. Some of their comments might not have been convenient or actionable, but I believe the comments were made in an honest effort either to support the PlanSJ process or at least work within it. I applaud their effort, regardless of whether I agree with specific positions. (Since those inputs are not yet in the public domain I can’t be more explicit.)
  2. The Board of Trade’s letter didn’t simply state positions I didn’t agree with, it stated some positions that appeared to have no basis (putting it mildly). And in that way, so far as I know, the Board was the outlier. Read carefully, their letter challenged the very idea of Saint John taking a planning approach focused on its own needs. At best, the Board did not take the time to research their position adequately or to consider the framework in which PlanSJ must function.
  3. Whether they were required to do so or not, the Board did make their challenge in the public domain. That not only gave me license to respond publicly (as there was no presumption of confidentiality), it compelled me to do so. Enormous effort and cost has gone into PlanSJ, and the future of this city relies on the creation of a municipal plan that will serve Saint John’s citizens first and foremost. It would be irresponsible to allow the PlanSJ process or its very basis to be criticized unfairly without providing an equally strong counterargument. As much as I dislike conflict and controversy, this is simply too important.
  4. To have made a general counterargument without critiquing the Board of Trade’s specific position would have implied falsely that these outlier concerns are more broadly represented than they really are. Context is important, and that context would have been lost without a direct, specific rebuttal.

The real question here isn’t what to do in response to criticism or negative opinion in the public domain. Bring it on, as long as those criticisms and opinions have a basis and are useful.

The question is how to respond when a stakeholder either rejects PlanSJ’s underlying goals or ignores the City’s very real constraints – or simply can’t provide considered input – yet wants a real voice in the PlanSJ process.

My hope is that the Board of Trade will accept the realities that this city faces and provide more considered feedback that can be translated into action within the plan. I also hope the Board begins to work more collaboratively and consistently within the PlanSJ process. If the Board can do that, I’ll be as fervent a supporter in future as I have been a critic these past several weeks.

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