Planning Meeting of July 30, 2008

Where is Professor Douglas when we need him?

OP ED Mike Sterling

The Douglas Process

More than 10 years ago the Southampton Town Council paid Professor David Douglas of the University of Guelph $15,000 to hold a set of summer long meetings (twice a week all summer) to determine the thoughts of the Southampton residents concerning the future.  Professor Douglas used a simple process.  He asked us to come to each meeting and discuss our vision of the future.

He was clearly a very diplomatic and smart man and over time he gained our respect and loyalty.

He used 3x5 cards to ask us to focus our thoughts.  If we could not express what we wanted Southampton to be on one half of one side of a postcard, then we had not focused sufficiently.  Work harder is what he recommended

This is a common technique of good meetings. Tighten the focus and good things appear.

The pretend postcard was directed to somebody who had moved from Southampton and now resided in Calgary.  "Remember 10 years ago .... here is what we've done since you moved."  This was all contained on a 3x5 card and not in squint font either.

That was the essence of the Douglas approach.  Sound too easy? It was not.  It forced us to have the endurance to see the process to conclusion and it forced us to work in small groups over time. 

Many people showed up at first.  Some dropped out.  It was real work.  As time went on people understood that this was tough and gripes about current things was not of the essence, so the real issues emerged and formed a vision, which in turn developed reachable goals.  It was no good to suggest something that could not be achieved.  After 3 month's work with Douglas and two of his graduate students, three  issues emerged:

  1. Period Lighting on High Street and beautification of the area from Victoria to the Flag.
  2. Beach restoration with native grasses.
  3. Restoration of the icon of the Community the Chantry Island Light.

All three of these objectives have been achieved.  Douglas did a good job.  Others might have chosen different items, but we selected these because we thought they were important and could be accomplished with our own effort and help from the Town and we got them done. 

Douglas forbade the mayor or Council members from attending so that people could speak freely and the Council was very curious about the process.  In fact they got downright curious about what we were doing.  It was fun.

The County Process

Today  Bruce County ran a one day seminar about the future of the highway 21 corridor starting at the CAW road and going to about the B-Line.  It was held at the PLEX..  This was to include just the highway 21 part, but could meander onto High Street for obvious reasons.

The  meeting was run by the County and each of us was directed into table groups with a table facilitator who came from the County Planning Office or maybe some were hired for the process. 

The goal was to get something done by about 2 pm and on paper so that it could be presented to the group.  The County officials will then put it together and post the raw information on a County Web site and sometime in the future refine it.

The Town was represented by a number of people who were helpful.  When asked they came to the various tables.

In the opening statement that was aided by about 100 PowerPoint slides, Bill Hollo from County Planning laid out the process and a number of possible solutions along with what he wanted us to do.

The tables were populated by a very strong group of residents from Port Elgin, Southampton and Saugeen Township.  I recognized many, but did not know all at my table.

After the opening presentation, the audience asked a number of questions about the process and the goals.  We did not know how this planning session fit with the official plan that had just been approved a few months ago.

It appears that this is not part of the official plan process and will result in guidelines for the Town Council in working with developers and business people along the corridor.  It is not expected to result in fixed guidelines that are mandatory. 

We were told that the process would not result in "taste police" policy dictums, but something that is short of that. As an aside near the end we were asked to be 'taste police' on building facades, colours and signage.  Bill Hollo (see below), by way of illustration said we were not concerned with the colour of siding.

We concerned ourselves with exactly that later when we were asked to consider colour as a thematic approach to the community.  We were given buildings to look at like the now going out of business SAAN store in Port  Elgin.

We were told that certain areas were not to be looked at.  An example was the area between Port Elgin and Southampton that is under Ministry of Transport (MTO) control.  Therefore, such problems as the danger crossing the Rail Trail were to be directed toward MTO and not this process. We were assured that the green agricultural belt in this area was an MTO concern and would be decided by them.

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We were to consider traffic, but not in depth and access conditions on either side of that area, but direct ourselves to other areas to help the planning process that is going to be aided by the County Planning Staff. 

With that we began.  My table was populated by very intelligent and well prepared citizens. Two of them brought pictures of both our community and other towns that they had selected especially to show contrasts.  At our table these pictures showed devastating differences and made points to the County Planner (maybe).

I was very impressed by the people from the community. 

Sometime after lunch we were asked to wrap it up and our table facilitator and the other tables worked furiously to come up with a number of charts that summerized their thoughts. 

Our table facilitator took this over completely and wrote everything down as fast as possible to meet the deadline.  He seemed to be writing from long experience and not necessarily what we talked about.

I've been in this phase of meetings before.  Anything reasonable goes on the chart and the table facilitator presents what he/she thinks the consensus was from the flip chart notes recorded and past experience.

After all tables reported we were asked to stay tuned and watch the web site and thanked for our participation and everyone left. 

Contrasts with the Douglas Process

Douglas was all about focus and the time required to reach consensus and he took the time to allow that to take place.  The ideas presented were harvested and chaff was separated from the wheat by the people themselves not the Town or County Officials.

By contrast the County wants a list of ideas that they can work into a plan in the future.  They plan on having a few Town Meetings to reveal whatever plan they come up with over the next six months.

Douglas was all about the Town Residents doing the planning and presenting it to the Council as a package at the end of a full summer process and many, many meetings.  After that it was up to the Council to approve or disapprove, but that was fine with us because we felt we had a great shot at doing the right thing.  Anyone who dropped out, could not complain.

By contrast the County Planning Process is clearly being orchestrated by the professional planners from the County and they will address the Town Council in the future with their version of the  focused ideas.  This may take some time.

Douglas had the opportunity to take his time.  He was given all summer to work with us.  He had two graduate students who could do surveys and interviews on special issues that would be fed back to us for our work. They were graded by him on how good a job they did with us and that was a double bonus for both us and them.

Also, Douglas and his staff became friends of ours and we trusted them and they trusted us because we had 'stayed the course'

By contrast the County had this one meeting and may have a few more.  We did not get to know each other yet.

Douglas wanted to exclude the Town Council from the process to get us to open up.

The County by contrast wanted the Town Council people involved and two attended along with a number of staff.

My Conclusions:

It is hard to fault the idea of asking people to participate in a planning process, even briefly.  This meeting was strange for me because my table facilitator never asked who I was or what my background was.  Douglas was very interested in who we were and we liked that a lot.  It led to trust.

I think it's really good to find out what a person's 'sweet spot' is and to ask them to give ideas in that area.  This sets the stage.  I did not know any of my other table members and have no idea about what their backgrounds were.  They appeared to be very smart and one had on his badge the fact that he was a planner.  He had good ideas.  He could have handled our table himself easily.

I don't know how this process will work out.  It could be that it will result in more meetings and some intense focus.  Right now there is no focus and the County is left with the job of doing the following:

  1. Taking the thoughts of today and making them more concise.  I'm sure they have their own ideas.
  2. Putting together a long term plan that is not rigid and has no teeth in it... just a good guideline is what they are after. That's a hard thing to do.  I wish them luck.

What will this result in over the next six months?  It probably will result in a report to Council and this may reveal some good ideas.  The jury is out.

I'm very skeptical as the discerning reader might have guessed, but my mind is open and I hope the process succeeds.  I think I might be a dropout in the future.  I think the process could be a lot better.  Where is Professor Douglas when we need him?


*William S. Hollo, MCIP, RPP

Deputy Director,

Planning and Economic Development Department,

County of Bruce