Sunday, July 14, 2024

Community engagement

There’s been a problem brewing in some of Pontiac’s lakes in recent years.
Invasive species from purple loosestrife to zebra mussels, and now Eurasian water milfoil, have slowly but surely been making their presence known.
They may originate elsewhere in the world, but as increased trade, tourist travel and migration make our planet smaller by the day, the more likely it becomes for exotic plants and animals to pop up anywhere there is a hospitable environment.
It presents a big challenge to small communities with a strong connection to its water bodies, be they lakes, streams or rivers, which is pretty much all the municipalities of the Pontiac.
In the case of Otter Lake, the question of what to do about its current milfoil problem was the subject of a public forum held on Saturday morning. There, after a well-researched presentation that culminated in a number of possible courses of action, members of the audience were offered the microphone to provide their thoughts.
What ensued was a lively discussion that included expressions of appreciation to the council for the work it is doing to address this challenge, thoughtful suggestions to help improve the implementation of some of the actions it has recommended, questions and yes, some criticism.
In other words, it was a model of community engagement.
It started with the identification of a problem that needs a solution. The local governing body, in this case the municipal council, decided to provide leadership on the matter. They consulted experts who provided science-based advice on which to formulate a range of possible responses. The council was forthcoming with local residents, informing them early and to the best of their ability about the problem and possible response options. And the public not only showed up, but engaged in the process in the most respectful and helpful way you could imagine.
This produces a couple of benefits.
First, it brings the community closer to a plan of action in which everybody can feel ownership. This is crucial because nothing less than everybody’s active cooperation is what will be required to prevent the spread of milfoil into all the lakes in the area.
Second, such wholesome exchanges foster mutual confidence between residents and their elected representatives, which is fundamental to making good things happen in any community.
It starts with a forthcoming council with no hidden agenda, just a transparently honest concern about an issue that needs to be addressed. A council with the wisdom to know that any sustainable solutions are going to require community participation and that the public must therefore be brought into the discussion from the get-go, not after the idea is half-baked. In turn, this engenders a willingness on the part of citizens to engage and to do so with respect, patience and helpful input, including polite disagreement when opinions differ.
This is what civilization in a democracy looks like, and we are fortunate to have some healthy outcroppings of it throughout the Pontiac.

Charles Dickson


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