Last winter, Council passed a motion to establish a public engagement strategy on the Sydenham water system. A report is expected in the next few months. The following comments are my contribution to this strategy:
One quarter of those people who live on the water lines are still not hooked up and a further 17% are hooked up but either not using the water or only making limited use of it. That is, after 15 years, 41% of the properties on the water lines are paying 1000 dollars a year to not use a service: an almost unbelievable demonstration of palpable anger. It is a pretty big raspberry from a significant number of people in Sydenham to the Township.
This expression of anger undermines confidence in the Township, it divides the community, and it shows that if the Township does not do a better job, we will not be able to effectively bring in collective services in other hamlets when they are needed. We already know that significant areas within the hamlet boundaries of Inverary and Harrowsmith are not able to be developed because of lack of water, and the quality of ground water is a concern that will just grow with more development.
The Township needs to set aside any residual anger at the people not fully using the system, and try to develop a better working relationship. There were significant mistakes made establishing the system.
At the same time the system is going to continue. The majority of the hamlet is using the system and many are appreciative of its water quality benefits and increased property values.
Establishing a better working relationship with all on the water system will take a couple of years and effort on the Township’s part. I also do not see an alternative except using the legal hammer of government to force a large group of residents to do something they do not want to do. A situation I don’t think anyone wants. And a situation that would further poison other attempts at establishing communal water and waste systems.
The core principles of a public engagement program should be:
- Recognizing the failures of implementation, as well as the benefits of the system.
- Honesty and openness on how the system is operating.
- Full public discussions on proposals going forward.
- Regular engagement with all who pay for the system.
Three concrete proposals that might help are:
1. Hold a public meeting in the relatively near future to up-date the community on the water system, answer any questions and listen to any comments about the past, present and future. This should be its primary focus; a second meeting could be held latter to go over specific proposals: possibly after proposals two and three have been implemented.
2. Creation of a water system public advisory committee to including water system users or potential users. Without being specific here the committee could meet a couple of times a year, get updates and be an initial sounding board for proposals. Alternatively, there could be bi-annual public meetings open to all on the water system. They need to be regular and relatively often, even if they are occasionally boring.
3. A yearly written report distributed to all properties on the system with invitation for questions and comment.
As I understand it, the Ministry of Health told the Township to fix the problem of contaminated wells. Council in it’s wisdom decided that just Sydenham resident should pay the bill rather that all residents of the Township. The Feds and the Province paid 1/3 each but it was still a lot of money.
It is interesting how the residents are still angry about it. I heard of one person that finally hooked up to the system and was very happy since the water was clean.
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