Alan Dolan & Associates

CRD Sewage Treatment: Rethinking Community Engagement

The Question
Do you have any suggestions on how to create a more authentic dialogue between the Capital Regional District (CRD) and citizens on such contentious situations as development of plans for providing sewage treatment?

The Problem
When local governments embark on large infrastructure projects, community members fear two things — unnecessary tax increases and something in their backyard they don’t want (NIMBY: not-in-my-backyard).

It is often been said that, “Nothing is immune to opposition, even if the project is needed and desirable.” In the case of sewage treatment, a large proportion of the population thinks the project is neither needed nor desirable. This adds to the challenge.

CRD seems to have thought that because both the province and the feds are telling greater Victoria to treat its sewage, it’s a done deal, but that doesn’t make the public consultation process any easier.

On the public consultation side, CRD used a combination of public meetings, open houses, and facilitated small groups sessions to present information and receive input. Wrapped around these processes was an advertising and communications process to get the information out to the broader community.

CRD had already purchased some of the land for potential sewage treatment sites. The public was already quite mistrustful of any consultation, so as soon as they saw the land purchases, they felt it was a “done deal” and that their input would be all but ignored. The CRD also presented a lot of technical approaches on how a sewage treatment system should work — where treatment should be located, where pumping stations should be, where the main pipes need to go, and how it should all hook up to existing infrastructure.

As the communications and consultations processes moved forward, the project was all but dead in the water. There was major mistrust in the community because CRD had already worked out how it would be done and had already decided where it would happen.

The mistrust was fueled by municipal politicians taking swipes at CRD (even though they are part of the regional district and sit on its board) saying that they had not been adequately consulted, they didn’t want certain things to happen in their municipality, or did not support sewage treatment at all.

A Solution
Once the federal and provincial governments said that CRD needed to treat its sewage, and the blue ribbon scientific panel made its decision that CRD needed to treat its sewage, and the CRD board, with representation from all its member municipalities, passed a motion that said CRD would treat its sewage, the first step is not to acquire land and develop engineering plans.

The first step is to engage the community.

The supposed Cadillac of public consultation processes is the multi-stakeholder advisory committee. Committees such as these have representation from a broad array of sectors — local government, federal government, provincial government, community associations, environmental groups, business groups, health groups, and more. In essence, the advisory committee is a table surrounded by conflicts of interest. Everyone at the table has a bone to pick, a keen area of interest, and in many cases a strong position to defend. Certain sectors often hold more weight in the process and the ultimate recommendations of these committees, even if they are made using some form of consensus decision making, are often quite biased and not representative of the community as a whole.

There is another approach and it is not new. Select a group of randomly chosen, ordinary citizens from the community (with representation from each of the municipalities and areas of CRD) for the purposes of:

  • Meeting together with a facilitator and developing a culture of respectful dialogue and trust
  • Learning everything they need to know about sewage and how to treat it, including bringing in experts from both inside and outside the community
  • Discussing the issues and coming up with options
  • Presenting those options to the broader community and soliciting input
  • Narrowing and refining the options and coming up with a recommended option

These groups are sometimes called citizens’ assemblies or citizen juries or wisdom councils.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, established in BC in 2002, was comprised of two randomly selected citizens (one man and one woman) from each of the province’s 79 electoral districts plus two Aboriginal members. The Assembly began with a “learning phase,” where it received experts and held public hearings so members could understand the different electoral systems in usage around the world and how they affected the political process. Then members deliberated over which electoral system to recommend. Finally the Assembly decided they would recommend a Single Transferable Vote system (STV) and the Assembly’s findings were presented in a report to the BC legislature.

The deliberations of a citizens’ assembly take time but the CRD process has already taken a great deal of time. Using groups of ordinary citizens has a number of distinct advantages:

  • Process is more democratic and representative of the community at large. The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) says, “No other process takes such care to accurately reflect the public.”
  • Discussions are not swayed by special interests and powerful stakeholders
  • Members become very well informed on the subject matter
  • When options are presented to the community, members of the public have more trust in the information
  • Process allows the assembly to look at alternative ideas from all over the world, not just the ideas of CRD’s engineers or its consultants

In the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, the final decision was left up to the provincial government. Despite this comprehensive, democratic, and well-informed process for engaging the public, the province still insisted that the final decision should be made via a referendum.

The CRD board could in fact choose to accept the recommendations of a Citizens’ Assembly rather than vote on them.

Following a citizens’ assembly process means that people are more trustful, more engaged and hopefully understand the problems before considering the solutions. In the end, the recommended solution might still lead to some NIMBY issues, but if a pumping station or a pipe needs to go in a particular area, the members of the assembly will better understand why and will be more informed around issues of noise, smell and aesthetics.