Official Community Plans in the context of The Community Charter
Passed in January 2004, The Community Charter is a new piece of legislature that replaces in part the Local Government Act. As it now stands The Community Charter gives municipalities in British Columbia a broader range of powers and consequently greater responsibility for their future.
The Community Charter states that the purposes of a municipality include “fostering the economic, social and environmental well-being of its community.” What, one wonders, could be simpler than that?
A major document required to bring The Community Charter to life is the Official Community Plan [OCP]. It is, according to none other than The Social Planning and Research Council of BC [SPARCBC] in its newsletter, Fall 2005 Volume 22 Issue Number 4 described as “…..a document that sets out the general policies and plans for where and how land-use and infrastructure, like sewers, parks, and transportation, will develop in the future. The creation of an OCP legally requires public input and it cannot be changed without public consultation.” Of interest to this observer is what follows: “All bylaws created after an OCP is adopted must not contradict the plans and policies of the OCP.”
The hierarchy which underlies all policy and planning in our communities in BC then looks like this:
1. The Community Charter
2. The Official Community Plan
5. Bylaws subsequent to adoption of the plan
There is no room for interpretation of any of the statements set out in the charter. What then prompted the public outcry and rejection of the Maple Ridge OCP in the summer of 2005? What lessons will the district staff, council, the various interest groups and the general public come away with from this debate, which ranged from pleading to vitriolic? Municipal politics can heat up from time to time, but it is rare to see neighbour pitted against neighbour, friend against friend in so public an arena.
Today, out of curiosity, I visited the Maple Ridge Public Library where I knew I could find a copy of the OCP 2005 Review. I also knew that I would find there copies of all the previous OCPs going back to 1995. As I began flipping through these thick, data-laden books, with no specific agenda in mind, it struck me that the 2005 OCP was prepared with The Community Charter as its guide, whereas all previous attempts at wrestling our future into a document came under the influence and guidance of the Local Government Act, that is to say pre-2004. This meant, though it was not really significant, that strictly speaking neither the authors of the 2005 OCP nor its critics were comparing apples with apples when it came to the DNA of the previous OCP and the current rendition.
Continuing my idle flipping through the OCPs of today and yesterday I thought I’d take a peek at the “introductory” pages of all these documents. What I was searching for were the words: “…..a document that sets out the general policies and plans for where and how land-use and infrastructure, like sewers, parks, and transportation, will develop in the future. The creation of an OCP legally requires public input and it cannot be changed without public consultation” and, of course: “All bylaws created after an OCP is adopted must not contradict the plans and policies of the OCP.” In no OCP ever prepared by the district tcould I find set out the definition of what exactly an OCP is, as stipulated by The Community Charter.
It is little wonder that the public become frustrated with legislators when they come to review government documents that fail to state their purpose at the outset. In defence of the authors of the 2005 OCP, the planning department did use language that in its opening remarks on the first day of the public hearings stated that the OCP was a "guiding document." By then however, it was too late. The public, having had the opportunity to read the document for several months ahead of the public hearings had not spotted the omission by the authors and consequently read the document believing that it was, as one speaker put it, cast in stone. Nothing could be further from the purpose or from the definition. Had this very fundamental difference been made clear from the beginning, the likelihood is that Maple Ridge would have had its OCP passed prior to the forthcoming municipal elections.
The lesson? Daniel Hill, President of SPAR BC, in the same newsletter quoted above, offers some clues. He says in his President’s Message Finding community in language: “….language is the foundation of culture and communication, one of the cornerstones of civilization. But language ―and indeed the way we think― is imperfect, and sometimes inadequate, and its mastery the work of a lifetime and more.”
Satisfying 70,000 people in a document as complex as the OCP needs thought. The first thought however, should be to tell the reader what it is they are about to read.
In today’s world, where corporate jargon has spilled over into government, government is at risk of loosing its way and perhaps forgetting its role as described so eloquently and an neatly by the authors of The Community Charter: “…….“fostering the economic, social and environmental well-being of its community.”
Words such as aims, goals, drivers, vision and mission statements are useful to the extent that they have become easily recognizable to followers and practioners of business, and when used are bound to illicit that knee-jerk reaction which may thrill a vice-president of marketing. Peppering documents such as an OCP with the same terms can however distract from the purpose of a document such as the OCP. To frame it in retail language, one could call this practice, “overdressing the window.”
The temptation is strong for government to want to be seen as hip and relating to the market sector by adopting phrases such as going forward, value-based, strategic plan and core beliefs. Hip it may be, but if it results in accusations of obfuscation and lingoism (a cousin I thought perhaps of jingoism) then government officials should think again before committing documents with this me-too language to publication.
In order to smooth the passage of policy-making, writers in government at all levels should give a wide berth to the showboating tricks of the market sector when it comes to documents such as the OCP. There is nothing novel in this suggestion; it is the subject of hundreds, if not thousands of books and academic publications. Once in a while however, a perfect storm will form in one community or the other, such as the one Maple Ridge was forced to weather during the summer of 2005. A tempest that reminded us that words omitted can be as damaging as words uttered. We wish the skippers, navigators, mid-shipmen, deckhands and even admirals of this little ship of ours called Maple Ridge, a smoother passage in 2006.