Sunday, August 14, 2016

Spin Disguised as Communication

 Last week I was one of many residents in attendance at Lunenburg's council meeting.  On the agenda was our very stinky Waste Water Treatment Plant.  Living in Old Town, the only time that I, personally,  smell sewage is on my daily walks on the back harbour trail, but for residents of certain streets in New Town it is a constant.  I have friends that lost the sale of their house because of the odour and I know many people who often can not open their windows in the summer and fall.

The meeting was very informative. What I learned was that our sewage treatment plant was built without an odour control system.  At council it was discussed that the  omission of this equipment was a cost savings strategy and that it was believed that it would not be necessary but whatever the reason, an error was made.  In the end (no pun intended) , the residents of Lunenburg have paid dearly for this attempted cost savings.

 From the discussion at council, at least one councillor believed that the entire Waste Water Treatment Plant was a mistake.  Councillor Mosher spoke to the public, at length, about how the plant was intended for Northern climates and does not operate well when the weather turns warm.  After years of pouring money into repairing the plant, he felt jaded and asked staff to compare the cost of installing an odour control system to the cost of an entirely new plant.  His request was not granted.  Mayor Bailey expressed that since the plant's installation in 2003 it has had many upgrades and repairs and the sewage that is treated is passing all provincial standards, so in that regard it does work. She reiterated that it's not that the odour control system was broken, it's that there never was  one.  So, it seems that the reason the town has failed to remedy the odour problem is because they were trying to solve the problem without actually installing an odour control system.  Doing the job right is a lot less expensive than doing the job twice (at least twice).

About a month ago, council went against staff recommendations and voted not to apply funding towards the  installation of an odour control system.  I'm not unsympathetic.  It's a case of the boy who cried wolf. Staff presented them with many solutions that failed and now when presented with a real, honest to goodness, odour control system, that has been proven to work in Charlottetown, PEI and a couple of other places they have lost faith and are weary of wasting tax payers' money. But here's where citizens come into the picture.  A friend of mine who lives at ground zero put a post on FaceBook regarding being gassed and it got a lot of attention.  The post was noticed by council and the issue made its way back on to the agenda.  Because so many people showed up to the meeting demanding an immediate solution, the motion was passed to approve the spending of $54,000 for the design of a bio filter.  (that's the odour control system.)

Now, here's where you need to pay attention.  The $54,000 is for the design on a piece of paper.  Let's say that you want to build a new house  You pay an architect to draw the house.  Now you have a drawing.  You do not have a house. What was approved at council was to pay for the design.  The design will be completed in October. Remember, council voted to spend money on a different problem, so there is no money to actually implement the design.  The cost of implementation was estimated at $780,000.  The next council will vote on whether or not to approve the implementation of the design.  They likely will, but they don't have to.  If between now and then something else breaks down on the plant, council might feel that it is not worth pouring more money into the beast. If the next council does approve the implementation, then and only then will staff try to secure funding.  Most infrastructure grants are funded one third federally, one third provincially and one third municipally. There probably will be funding, but maybe not. So, right now, we, the tax payers of Lunenburg have approved a picture on a piece of paper.  That's it.  Don't get me wrong.  I think it's great.  I think it was the right thing to do and I think there's a good chance that everything else will fall into place.  If all goes well, it was estimated that people in New Town will be able to take the clothes pins off their nose in July of 2017. (Hang in there, Guys.)

 So, the town put out a press release on the town web site.  Here it is.   To summarize, the announcement explains that 'the town has approved $54,000 for the design....  the town has taken a major step towards addressing waste water treatment odour..... The design will be completed in October.... '    No mention of installation, cost of installation, estimated date of installation or that there is no money to carry out installation at this point in time.  The press release is not communication.  It is not technically dishonest because everything in it is true, but if the aim is to inform the public, I would say there were some pretty key pieces of information left out. The press release is political spin.  The reader is led to believe that Mayor Bailey and council have finally fixed a thirteen year old problem.

I read this press release last week, noted to myself that the town desperately needs to hire a communications person, posted a brief clarification on Facebook and then I walked away from it because, really, who needs it?  I've got better things to do with my life than writing this  blog post at midnight.  But today, CBC picked up this piece of spin and ran with it.  Without interviewing the town, they took the press release at face value and wrote an article.  Seriously?  CBC? I sent in my complaint and they adjusted the article a bit, but it's still misleading.  You can read it HERE.   But now there are so many people that actually believe this problem was solved for $54,000.  What a disservice to the public.

So, yes, I am concerned with a lack of real journalism and all that jazz, but what I am really concerned about is that most people will read the town's communication and believe that the problem will be solved in October.  There was nothing wrong with the actual facts.  Mistakes were made.  They fixed stuff, figured stuff out along the way and now they really think they have the solution.  They approved the funding for the design, which will completed in October and the next step is to approve the installation and secure funding.  The whole thing should be fixed by next summer.......  That would be clear communication with the aim of educating the public. Why can't this sort of communication come directly from the town? 

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