Public engagement on North Cowichan’s Municipal Forest Reserve under scrutiny

PlaceSpeak will continue to be used for the public consultation process into interim management of North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve despite several members of council raising concerns about the on-line platform.

However, Megan Jordan, the municipality’s communications and public engagement manager, told sixmountains.ca on May 21 that it won’t be necessary for the pubic to register for PlaceSpeak in order to fill out a questionnaire about the future of the forests.

“We will have the survey link on our webpage, as well as in PlaceSpeak to reduce barriers to access,” she said. “This means everyone does not have to register for PlaceSpeak to fill out the survey and provide feedback.”

Jordan further said that individual names won’t be included with a summary of the questionnaire results. “Instead, it will be more high level; for example, it would state 60% of residents feel it is important to be able to access recreational trails in the MFR….” she said

Jordan also said there will also be an opportunity for written submissions through Lees & Associates consultants, though it may limited.

“While Lees is ideally predicting 10 500-word email submissions, the fact is they have budgeted for collating 5,000 words of free-form submissions within the project cost. Anything above and beyond this threshold would cost extra for their time….

“This is so because PlaceSpeak has algorithms and software within the platform that make the process of collating free-form submissions quicker, easier, and less manual.”

Jordan’s response follows a request by sixmountains.ca to council on May 20 seeking further clarification of the public engagement on interim forest management.

At the previous council meeting, on May 6, Mayor Al Siebring, and councillors Rob Douglas, Tek Manhas and Christopher Justice, to varying degrees, expressed concerns either about PlaceSpeak as being a confusing platform or fears that a strictly on-line consultation process might exclude a portion of the citizenry.

“I live on-line, I registered, I created an account with PlaceSpeak….” Siebring said. “I have never ever been into PlaceSpeak to do some consultation or to engage in something where I’ve completed the process because ever single time I walked away frustrated because the platform drives me crazy.”

He added: “My head just explodes. I look at that platform and I go, ‘no.’ We’ve got to find a better way to do it.”

Consultant Erik Lees countered: “On a good day, we get 10 per cent of the community that will attend in person” for a public-engagement meeting compared with perhaps 70 to 80 per cent who are on-line. “I actually think we can extend our reach.” 

Jordan commented that the benefits of PlaceSpeak are that it is Canadian and the data stored on Canadian servers, it is used by the other jurisdictions, including Cowichan Valley Regional District, and it verifies that comments are coming from citizens of North Cowichan.

Ultimately, council did not specifically vote to reject PlaceSpeak. That’s why I went to council to seek clarification on its future use.

B.C.’s Ministry of Forests told me it has conducted several recent public consultations on forest issues without using PlaceSpeak.

Everyone is waiting to see what Lees rolls out next on the public engagement.

The wording of a public on-line questionnaire will prove critical.

The first draft included four options for continued logging during the interim, but no option for “no logging.” A citizens' Working Group has asked that the question be removed.

Let’s hope this consultation meets the high public expectations for engagement on the critical forestry issue.

— Larry Pynn May 21, 2020

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