Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different… – C.S. Lewis
I like to imagine the newly elected Town Council sitting around in their big chairs in 2014 just staring at each other. Starry-eyed and hopefully grinning, thinking about all of the great things they were about to do. This venture, they must have thought, is going to be phenomenal.
We must have thought so, too. Each of the Council members were so well-liked, so well-respected, we voted them in over many other very popular, capable and revered community members.
Fast forward four years later to 2018. References to Town Council are met with a sneer, personal insults are thrown at members of Town Council in public and in private, nearly every Council decision becomes divisive and includes at least one gossip controversy. Deep River Townspeople have become suspicious of our Town Council.
Are Deep Riverites all wrong?
Is Town Council out to screw us over?
How can both of these statements be untrue?
Plenty has changed over the last few years. Even in 2014, politics looked a little different. The increasing popularity of 24-hour news cycles, Twitter, memes, online blogs and Facebook pages mean that lay people have become more political than ever. We have easy access to information and we want more of it.
In the past (when social media was more about sharing photos than opinions), municipal news came from two sources: live Town Council meetings or NRT articles. Honestly, I used to skip municipal politics articles and go straight to the NRT Lost and Found column. Match-Up was sassy. Town Council meetings and articles were targeted to those who were actively interested.
In a new and more accessible world, Deep Riverites now have access to a quick and sassy Coles-notes version of municipal politics: other people’s online posts. Angry, excited and surprising posts are most likely to catch other people’s attention. Objective first-hand materials on the town website tend to be skipped-over. Which would you chose:
(a) A seven-paragraph explanation of a complex financial proposal and presentation?
(b) AN ALL CAPS POST WITH A PICTURE AND A &^%$ING SWEAR WORD?
You have my attention!
In Deep River, where social media does not reach, the social gossip does. Conversations that begin with “Did you see what so-and-so posted about…” are regularly overheard Saturday afternoons at the Legion.
Our newfound access to municipal politics begs the question: what’s the problem?
Contrary to the cliché, all publicity is not good publicity. Headline-driven news funnels out success. Opinions and drama make social media news. Competence and stability do not. Exposing supposed blunders and conspiracies happening in our own municipal government is a great way to lure people into caring about municipal politics. Using this tactic means, however, that Town Council members get caught in the net. The municipal news stream reads like a tabloid, and the Town Council is the favourite target.
Who should we blame for our biased municipal news stream?
Well, we could blame the townspeople for failing to read the town website and be objectively informed. However, the minutes are no John Grisham novel: they are boring and long. Tedium is why we never got interested in municipal politics in the first place.
We could blame our little NRT. Having solid hard-hitting investigative news stories that uncover newsworthy tips before the event happens would be amazing. In this day of SunMedia and a dying press, we are lucky to have a local paper at all – especially one of this calibre. Funding for “Spotlight” likely is not in the cards. Besides, who would be left to write the sassy Lost and Found?
Unfortunately, it seems Town Council takes the blame on this, too. In an information age, it is helpful to provide candid and timely updates to residents in formats they can understand and in formats that appeal to them. Our town likes to be updated and in the know so they can participate or at least feel like they can participate in a meaningful way.
The good news is that Town Council can change its lot. It can move from tabloid target to public ally by repurposing social media to its advantage.
By jumping ahead of the social media opinions and divulging the story before it becomes a story, the Town has a way of explaining itself. Deep Riverites can feel like they are working alongside Council in addressing the problems that affect us all. Social media can even invite participation for many who do not have the time or the confidence to otherwise share their views. Transparency alone can quell suspicion.
Town Council is not poised against us, the people. We are not the United States of America. Cobden did not meddle in our election, Mayor Lougheed is not antagonizing Bruce Township about the relative size of its nuclear reactors, Terry Myers’ children are not posting fake news on Twitter. While we will not always agree on the decisions Council make, we must all agree that they are doing their best for us.
Suspicions naturally arise when people feel they are being left in the dark about important decisions. If the Town wants the trust and confidence of the townspeople, they need to turn on the light early so we can easily perceive their best intentions.