An exclusive interview with Ward 4 Councillor Shawna Stolte on how she introduced meaningful citizen participation with a Working Group

By Pepper Parr

April 9th, 2022



The interview we had with Councillor Shawna Stolte was extensive At the end of part 1 she was elected and getting used to the job and realizing she faced the steepest learning curve of her life.

Being a city Councillor is all about reports; many of the agendas run over 200 pages.

Councillors Bentivegnia and Stolte during the first time Councillors were back in Chambers.

Does a Council member have any input to the reports?
“Not really,” said Stolte, ” It comes to you, and you can talk to staff about a report but once it is on the agenda it is part of the public record and can only be changed by a motion from a member of Council.

“But you can certainly have conversations with staff about amendments that you can bring forward and do some collaborative work with staff and other council members behind the scenes before it gets to committee.

“Staff will hesitate, say there are risks., we’re not sure, we don’t think this is a good idea –  When that happens it’s a whole new ballgame.”

Stolte had a clear sense as to the changes she feel are needed to make council meetings both more productive and truly engage the public.

Getting the idea through to staff was a challenge – but she persisted and eventually prevailed.. There is now a Working Group – the story on how it got to where it is – is both instructive and revealing.

While a Housing Strategy was part of the Strategic Plan and was made a focal point in what council wanted to do in this term of office it didn’t get much attention in the first years of this term.

It was the push from Stolte that resulted in the creation of a Working Group “primarily because of a push from my background – social work and housing development.”

“Staff were already planning a conversation about housing; it became a priority- few knew then just how big of a priority it was going to be.

The in force Official Plan

Given the interim control bylaw, the work being done on the Official Plan the Housing Strategy got put on the back-burner. It became quite evident every time a conversation was had that Council had to get a handle on housing – it was becoming a crisis.

“We had to figure out a way to get it back off the back burner during a period of time when the city had not yet reorganized the planning department.

They were overloaded, they were overwhelmed. They had too many assets on their plate. And putting the housing strategy forward looked like it was not going to happen in this term. “Come heck or high water” Stolte  wasn’t prepared to sit and do nothing.

Stolte understood all this – what she didn’t want to see staff beavering away with no public input while the process was taking place.

Stolte wanted a Working Group that would parallel what the city was going to be doing. The working Group would be drawn from people who volunteered.

“So I started pushing. There were numerous meetings and conversations with Heather MacDonald, the Director of Planning at the time; pushing and pushing and saying we need to get this this on.

“That took months of back and forth with myself and staff – helping them feel more comfortable about changes and not relinquishing control but understanding that they would maintain control over the appropriate piece but that they had to be willing to let residents have some control over this housing strategy and what it meant to the citizens of the city.

Heather MacDonald Executive Director Planning before she retired.

“Heather MacDonald at least had the wherewithal to say Okay, let’s get the consultants on board and working. I was saying I didn’t want this to be a situation where residents are informed about what the housing strategy is going to be – we needed to make sure that residents have a very strong voice right from the get go.

“That I was trying to implement or at least propose a model where there would be like a three ways tool with staff, consultants and residents working as a triad right from the beginning. That was met with a great deal of discomfort from staff and because they were anxious about losing control over the scope of work or losing control over the mandate or control over the recommendations coming out.

“I pointed out the success had with the Working Group and with to key staff” showing them that ” Your not losing control. It’s just going to be a different way.

We asked Stolte if the experience with the Working Group manifested itself anywhere else in the process and the other departments on any other issues?

“It’s starting to” said Stolte.  It is starting and it has been really  exciting. I did not know that Tim (City Manager) and the City Clerk and others were watching this housing strategy working group model, because it was a new model that we were using, because I had pushed to say that I was going to take the resident piece out of the whole process and I had a staff direction and a whole background piece ready to be part of a staff direction to create a task force a separate task force.  I was wanting to get the residents voice in place.  And it was literally the night before I was putting that forward that Staff said okay timeout, we will implement a version of your task force we understand that this will happen one way or the other. We don’t want it to be completely outside of what we’re doing. So we’ll bring it in and we’ll call it a working group.

Director of Community Planning Mark Simeoni is part of the Working Group on Housing Strategy

And then I had to fight to say it’s not going to be a citizen advisory committee. I don’t want these guys seeing a draft after the fact I want their voice right from the beginning. And so that started this new model of which I didn’t know that senior staff were watching to see how it was going to work.

And we have heard feedback now. It’s been nine months that we’ve been having these meetings, and we’ve heard feedback that a lot of senior management, the organization are seeing it as a model to move forward with that has been really successful. And the staff are comfortable knowing that they didn’t lose control the way they thought they would.

Stolte was a licensed real estate agent with a degree in social work; they are key parts of her DNA; they determine her agenda. People and housing were the top priorities.

The Planning department was doing its work putting in place the process, getting clear terms of reference, determining which staff members would be part of the initiative.

The Working Group has been meeting virtually – they are expected to move into live meetings soon.

The Working Group was created by Council; Stole, the Mayor and Councillor Sharman were on part of the Group that made Stolte the Chair
Public access to the Working Group meetings was limited and on more than one occasion media were excluded.

The first meeting of the Working Group that I sat in on was mind blowing. I heard the Director of Community Planning talk about the importance of Community using his personal experience. This seldom happens at committee meetings – Staff do not talk about their personal experiences – they are professionals.

I heard, and reported on the President of the West End Home Builders Association talk about affordable housing as a responsibility of the developers – he added “we are part of the solution but we are not THE solution, or words to that effect.

To me it was quite clear, some very, very solid stuff was coming out of the working group.

I asked Councillor Stolte: Where else do we do you want to this model being used in the city ?

Councillor Shawna Stolte – some far ranging changes have been put on the table. Will they take root – or will they kill the messenger?

“Any of these major initiatives we have; environmental; development; the review of the Strategic Plan; anything that is a priority for the community that needs to have that front facing voice.

“Another of those changes has to be how we do business in the city; the working group taught us how we can do business differently.

“It’s just having a citizen voice at the forefront, not as an afterthought at some point when a draft is basically already begun. It’s a form of engagement. That’s not the totality of engagement by any stretch.

“Now that the draft of the housing strategy has been released the Working Group is talking about engagement opportunities to allow the public to give feedback on this draft housing strategy.

“Staff were saying, Oh, we’re gonna do an online survey and we’re gonna have a zoom town call about it.

“I started saying, how about a park pop up? Like, let’s get a tent down and Spencer Smith Park and it was like, Oh, we’re not sure and I’m like, come on. Come on. We’re gonna have some music festival.

“Staff are kind of iffy on it, so I brought it up at the Working Group and they just ate it up. They were like, Oh, we have incentives. You can get businesses to get coffee. It was just flying. And I’m kind of looking at staff saying: See ?”

We asked Councillor Stolte – now that you are in the fourth year of your term – looking back what I didn’t you do right.

Part 1 of a series

Part 3 will be about what Stole thinks she got right, what she got wrong and what her agenda will be in the next election in October.

Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 comment to An exclusive interview with Ward 4 Councillor Shawna Stolte on how she introduced meaningful citizen participation with a Working Group Part 2

  • Sharon

    Great writeup on Councillor Stolte and her determination and commitment to move forward as a leader, not a follower, with a shake up to move forward with change.