Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Out with the old in with the new?...Facebook is here to stay.

   Jim Scott is at the forefront of his community. Presently responsible for all communications aspects at the University College of the North as its Communications Director; Scott is also a sitting council member and Deputy Mayor representing The Pas, since 2010.

Whereas most have heard, visited or even resided in small towns such as The Pas, Manitoba; the basis of their very survival is often challenged. Professor Bob Benedetti, Director of University of the Pacific's Jacoby Center for Public explains; small town politics is a different animal altogether, "What happens in small towns is that there isn't a political class that, in a sense, lives apart or can be apart. They live with everybody and everybody sees them."

Jim Scott
  Changing socio-economic parameters in rural and northern communities across Canada; are critical. Recent analysis made by Statistics Canada in 2011, indicate natural resource sector growth being, “… 13% of Canada‘s total employment in 2001… down from 14% in 1991.”
Municipalities are faced with an aging infrastructure, coupled with limited natural resource sector employment opportunities, including a diminishing population base, and high taxes. Residents of the Pas, are taking their concerns, issues and discussions on social media forums such as Facebook. It is seductive and can achieve greater, “instantaneous” rapport with the electorate. Scott is well aware of this fact, and does not shy away from the challenges it creates.

 The Pas Mayor Al McLaughlan, is also fond of adapting to new social trends, “…This is my own personal page to discuss issues in town,” he stated online. As a consequence, residents have unfettered access to the Mayor’s ear…so to speak. McLaughlan and Scott are of the opinion that while social media is increasing attention to the issues at hand, there is something to be said about face to face conversations.
 “If I park my car…say for example on Fischer Avenue by the Westoba Credit Union and I’m going to the post office a block away…It can take me sometimes 45 minutes to get down that block. To just talk and talk! Can’t do it anywhere else in the world that I know of.”
   Resident of The Pas, 28 year old Danny Halpin agrees, “It gets people talking, and it’s a way for people to share their ideas. At least there is a discussion going on.”

  Is social media in fact ‘taking over’ other forms of communication? 

That is up for debate. It seems however that more and more people who reside in rural and northern communities are more inclined to use this medium at the expense of others; at least they control the message. Frustration aside; what is posted on the mayor’s Facebook page is increasingly giving residents an opportunity to vent their displeasure.
   “You see these perceived huge controversies in the Mayors Facebook page and originally think what a mess this is.  But if you look at all 80 to 100 comments, it basically involves about six people.  Often times it’s the same six.  You know what they say about pleasing all of the people all of the time,” stated Scott.
Danny Halpin
Born in Flin Flon, Halpin confesses that the issues facing The Pas, contain familiar echoes, “I am aware of the issues that an old aging small town has…none of this is really new or surprising to me.” Young, active, ambitious, and possessing a strong sense of community volunteerism: Halpin is of the opinion that engagement is preferable to apathy, “People in the community are what really what ‘makes or breaks’ a town.”  

In this regard, the absence of other council member’s voices addressing local concerns on Facebook: irks Scott, “It seems that I’m the only one that’s responding to people’s concerns. You never ever hear from the other councillors.”

Jennifer Early, the assistant to the CAO explained that answering questions online is not a given.
 “I just wanted to clarify that the Mayor’s Facebook page is something the Mayor initiated and is looked after by himself.  This Facebook page has nothing to do with ‘Council’ or the Town. And that is why staff nor Councillors respond to questions.  We have a policy and procedure for when people have complaints or concerns that they want dealt with and it is not done through Facebook.”
That may be, but in Scott’s opinion: the issues and possible solutions are posted more often than not on social media. Whatever misgivings there may be in adopting social media as the panacea in addressing all forms of social ills; blogger Jacob Martens believes it to be of poor quality when discussing politics.
“In truth, much has been made about social media's ability to truncate political meaning (and other meanings, certainly) at the expense of in-depth discussion.”
Property taxes, recreational facility upgrades, youth oriented projects, and crime discussions permeate McLauglan’s Facebook page. Scott admits that he and his colleagues should perhaps delegate more responsibility to organization; that have the necessary expertise and experience to administer and coordinate what is in the best interest of those who reside in the area.
 “Why don’t we hand over the annual recreation budget to the Kelsey Recreation and say handle it. Look after everything. You want to improve the ball diamonds? Go ahead and improve them. You want to organize more hockey tournament? Have more hockey tournaments. You want to build a new skate park facility? Put one in. Here’s the money.”
Proposals of this sort explained Halpin, states a pre-determination, “That’s assuming that the people at Kelsey Rec have a better idea on how to run things. I can’t comment on who would be better (qualified) to handle the money.”

 The Accommodation Tax earmarked for the promotion of the municipality of The Pas are questioned. Capital ventures made by Mayor and Council are heavily criticized, “For a council that prides itself on communication I find it unfathomable that the local hoteliers (there are only 5-6 of us) would, again, not be notified of further changes to the hotel tax structure,” stated Hotelier Alan Gibb on July 23rd.

 “He’s (Gibb) not wrong in his analysis. We have not communicated very well with the hoteliers,” admitted Scott.
“We make a decision, and then we tell them we made a decision. I’m so disgusted with this Accommodation Tax that I want to through my hands in the air. We've changed it, and changed it, and changed it. At the end of the day we are going to have to do something about this.”
Budget expenditures for snow removal and water main breaks is forcing mayor and council to push for disaster aid from the province of Manitoba and the Federal government, “We have currently spent more than $600 000 than we have budgeted for,” said Scott.

 When queried about the prospect of finding added resources to complement the short fall, he stated the following, “We don’t know yet, we’re still trying to figure that out.”
There are other comparisons to be made as to the rate of taxpayer contributions. Scott emphasises the Kelsey School Division (KSD).
“Nobody challenges decisions made at the school board level; yet it’s the largest portion of their taxes. No one complains about the school division. In the last municipal election in 2010 they were all elected by acclamation. And if you ask them, they’ll tell you it’s because they’re doing such a good job: I don’t think so. I think it’s apathetic as hell. Nobody cares about the school division.”
Halpin himself does not have a satisfactory answer as to why the KSD board has the ability to avoid taxpayer’s scrutiny, “I've noticed that nobody has mentioned the school division in any of the complaints, or comments on the mayor’s Facebook page. Again, I don’t have any idea how (KSD) spends their money. I couldn't really say.”
Case in point, Scott describes events which transpired through a period of two years (2010-2012).

“We were an elected council for about three weeks when we received a letter from the school division stating, ‘We are doing upgrades to MBCI and the Winton Pool is of course owned by the town and it needs to be upgraded and it’s going to cost you $ 700 000…when would you like to drop the check off?’ Well we (the town) didn't budget for that. It became 1.6 million dollars at the end of the day. We didn't go to the school division and say, ‘Well okay you told us it was going to be $700 000. It looks like you owe us $900 000 when do you want to drop the check off?’….We just did it.”

In effect, there is simply not enough revenue generated at the municipal level. While criticisms made by Scott can be perceived as just good old fashion, political rhetoric without merit; the underlying truth is self-evident.
“You could take all of the town’s revenue and through it to fixing the roads and you would probably run out of money; and the roads would still need to be fixed,” commented Halpin.
Many residents in The Pas are divided. There are too many problems and not enough resources to accommodate all the needs of the community. Young professionals like Halpin, have difficult decisions to make, “I just bought a house this year, so I've committed myself to stay in The Pas for the next five years. We’ll see what happens from there.”

A new slate of municipal elections are slated to be conducted on October, 2014. Halpin is not currently thinking of letting his name stand for nominations; despite being encouraged to do so. He explained that attending a few council meetings and understanding the process is important.

 Crystal Morrish (Executive Director of The Pas Community Renewal Corporation) and Alan Gibb have let their names stand for nominations for council. McLaughlan is also running for re-election, and as for Jim Scott, “I am at the cross roads and will need to make a decision. I know I'm running.  I just don't know if it is for re-election as a Councillor or candidate for Mayor.  I hope to have an answer by August 18th.”

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