14 December 2017

When the line between civil and uncivil becomes blurred bullying can’t be far behind

For two nights this week Commissioners and the public discussed a report on the future of swimming opportunities in Vancouver. Sounds like a fairly innocuous subject. Planning staff, along with hired consultants, wrote a lengthy and far ranging report—500+ pages, including history, public consultation, costs, and recommendations amongst others. 

Parts of the report and some of the recommendations upset groups within the community. Proposals to close some pools and build others, recommendations to continue to move away from neighbourhood services and into community and destination sites, hit a nerve in some. More than 60 people signed up to speak at the meeting.

Both Commissioners and the public had questions and opinions about the report and the recommendations. Questions and opinions are good, except when those are directed not at the work, but at the people who completed the work. Questions about the report can be asked in a civil and polite manner. Hard hitting questions about methodology and conclusions are fair game, questioning the motivation of the writers is not.

Our Park Board planners are hard working, dedicated professional civil servants. They are well educated, highly trained experts. They write reports based on requests from Commissioners and the needs of senior management. They put their hearts and souls into their work because they believe they are working for the greater good.

In my quest for answers, I crossed the line from questioning the report, to questioning the report writer. That was unfair. The Chair of the meeting rightly reminded me that we were there to ask questions about the report and not to make political statements. 

Unfortunately, I was not the only one to do so. Too many speakers asked questions, not about the report, but about the writers of the report. Over the two nights some participants questioned staff’s motivation and their bias. This is not fair. The only bias planners have is to the betterment of our city. The only motivation is to build community and amenities to serve the public. 

Civil discourse is at the heart of participatory democracy. When that civil discourse crosses the line to uncivil questioning it becomes bullying. We have seen that at the School Board in Vancouver, with the result that two independent reports concluded the work place became toxic and staff felt unsafe.

Our civil service serves us, the public. They are hired because of their expertise, their education, and their dedication to our community. They are there not to be ridiculed, have their motivations questioned, or to be bullied. I know the power words have and how when mishandled can be hurtful. I have made a commitment to choose my words more carefully; to ask questions pertinent only to the reports before me; and to respect our staff and the work they do.

We are fortunate to live in a representative democracy, but with that comes rights and responsibilities. Respect is one of those rights. Our responsibility is to ensure that respect is given to all.

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