Public engagement used to be a vigorous process that involved hundreds of people - what changed?

By Pepper Parr

August 25th, 2023



The small group that met at the Appleby Line Ice Rink earlier this week to take part in a visioning exercise on what they wanted to see take place at the former Bateman High School site.  A second visioning meeting the following day, during the daytime, drew ten or so people with just two tables set out.

Community Engagement has come to this: fewer people and empty tables.

Things are different these days when it comes to public involvement.

There was a time when large crowds came out to take part in public participation events.

It was Standing Room Only- people packed the hall to listen and to be listened to.

The meeting was held to get input on what people thought could be done in the east end community where a development was being considered brought out a crowd, 350 people – they filled the large space.

Staff hovered over the tables where people were looking at large graphics and asking questions.

Why the difference? In those days we didn’t have the City Communications department that is currently in place. And we didn’t have the city manager we now have either.

KwKwab Ako-Adjei: Director, Corporate Communications & Engagement.  He reports to Jacqueline Johnson: Executive Director of Community Relations & Engagement.

City Manager Tim Commisso

Jacqueline Johnson: Executive Director of Community Relations & Engagement.

Kwab Ako-Adjei: Director, Corporate Communications & Engagement

She reports to City Manager Tim Commisso – collectively those three determine the tone and quality of citizen engagement.

The changes that took place were not accidental. Tim Commisso as City Manager runs the City administration. He is the only person hired by City Council.

They delegate everything to him.

Commisso hired the Executive Directors and they in turn hire and direct the people they manage.

In the photographs that follow there is clear evidence on the way things were before Commisso was hired by Mayor Marianne Meed Ward as the Interim City Manager once she fired James Ridge.

The full story on how Commisso came to Meed Ward’s attention has never been told. He was not part of municipal politics when she was the Councillor for ward 2. Meed Ward has yet to hold an open media event where questions can be put to her directly. She has chosen to use events where she basically has control of what gets discussed. Cogeco Cable, Bill Kelly on CHML have all fallen into line and let the Mayor babble away.

Meed Ward didn’t do this all by herself – but at the time she had a six member Council – five of whom were new to politics. They took their cue from the Mayor and during the early days the five relied heavily on the advice and direction Commisso was more than prepared to give them.

Members of Council are a little wiser now and they do their best to argue their point of view. Marianne understands media, when the TV camera lights go on she is like a moth to a flame.
In 2018 when she was first elected Mayor she told the citizens of the city what they wanted to hear – no high rise towers downtown. Things didn’t work out that way.

A photo of a model created by a developer of the area around Lakeshore Road and Old Lakeshore Road clustered with high rise developments most of which are approved, built or in the process of being built. All within the last ten years.

Meed Ward did work hard to move the Urban Growth Boundary further north and focus on having the high rise buildings clustered around the GO station. A new Official Plan was passed – it is currently under appeal at the Ontario Land Tribunal.

What the citizens of Burlington have not seen from the members of Council is an attempt, heck not even an effort, to open things up and create events similar to what has been shown in this article.

Staff interacting with citizens at a public meeting: this gentleman looks a little apprehensive.

City Staff listening while a citizen explains what he likes and doesn’t like about a proposed design.

It has happened in the past and it can happen in the future; before that can happen members of Council have to instruct the City Manager to do things differently.

Don’t hold your breath for that one.

Council recently passed a bylaw that actually threatens the public with Trespass Notices, puts limits on who they can call at City Hall and in some instances diverts email a citizen sends to a Staff member.

A picture is indeed worth 1000 words.

The Mayor declares they Council and Staff are not punching bags but she can do her level best to pound away at a member of Council .

The city now has a Council member who has told a resident that the Council member will not send him material or answer his questions.

The other members of Council say nothing.

This Council has lost its way.

Salt with Pepper is the musings, reflections and opinions of the publisher of the Burlington Gazette, an online newspaper that was formed in 2010 and is a member of the National Newsmedia Council.


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8 comments to Public engagement used to be a vigorous process that involved hundreds of people – what changed?

  • Michael Hribljan

    I think we are seeing the true colours here, her ideology is of that of the progressive far left. Lots on social media to promote the appearance of communication and transparency, controlling a prescribed narrative, however you now see communication/speech limited with policies enacted at City Hall. Engagement forms filled out, you then read the reports and the input from the public was not followed (ie. 2023 city tax public engagement). There are many examples.

    The “left” believe they know what’s best for society, and believe they are voted in to enact that belief and have the mandate. What they forget is they work for all citizens and need to take a broad perspective. When people realize this they pull back and see their input as a waste of time.

    • Blair Smith

      I agree with the main thrust of your observations but to associate this behaviour with “the left” is, I believe, mistaken, rather simplistic and not borne out by recent experience. I find “the right” to be no greater advocates for the voice of the citizen and the interests of democracy; they simply have a different bias. Or perhaps you feel that Premier Ford has the concerns of Ontarians at heart when he cuts funding to long term care, deregisters procedures from health care funding, builds a highway that is widely criticized as unnecessary/environmentally harmful and sells off Greenbelt land to build the least affordable homes on the planet.

  • Lynn Crosby

    What changed? We went through this exact thing numerous times, including with the downtown plan, right down to the post-it notes, saw it was a joke where they didn’t listen to the feedback, and we have no desire to waste our time again. This is way too little, way too late and is seen by many as simply an exercise in them ticking off an “engagement” box.

    I feel sorry for the staff members who run these sessions. They aren’t the ones who made the decisions to hide the full cost from the public, to rip out the stage (?!), to decide how a significant part of the building isn’t to be used by the City at all – and now we find out even more of it will be likely given to Brock U after five years – but they are the ones who have to face the public. The Mayor isn’t there. She’s posting on social media photos of Minister Clark at the AMO conference, with nary a word condemning the corruption.

    This is not, in my opinion, the persona put forward by the pre-2018 Meed Ward, the saviour of the downtown, the champion of democracy. Where is the integrity by any Mayor to speak out? Traded so easily for “strong mayor powers?” Silence is taken as condoning, and this is not something anyone, certainly including municipal Mayors and councillors, should be condoning. Our trust in our so-called leaders is long gone.

  • Caren

    Philip, I totally agree with you. I received my flyer re the Bateman Engagement meetings last night, August 24th. Too late to attend either of the 2 meetings which had already occurred on August 22nd & 23rd. (which I commented on in the previous article on Small Bateman Engagement).

  • Blair Smith

    I believe that the answer to your question is both horribly obvious and brutally simple – everything has changed. I could argue that the pandemic has altered both our behaviours and our expectations and that would certainly be true. However, the most fundamental change has come, I believe, in the incredible debasement of political integrity, probity and accepted protocols. Again, some of this can be laid directly at the feet of Trump and his like (actually, he is quite a unique beast) but it has been coming for years – Trump is just the final distortion. I think that people neither trust nor respect any level of government nor any politician. And why should they? The tone-deaf, single-minded entitlement and moral vacuum consistently demonstrated federally is only surpassed by the corruption and open patronage displayed provincially. Municipally, and again my opinion only, we rarely see much beyond communications campaigns/regimens that have replaced policy proposals and sound operational planning; virtue-signalling and ‘feel good’ photo ops/events/projects supplant fiscal prudence and fiduciary responsibility. And the band plays on. The most telling recent evidence of all this was Clark’s speech at the AMO conference this week. Given the revelations of last week and this, the response of the audience (all municipal politicians and senior staff) to his address should have been to rise as a collective and leave the auditorium. Imagine the statement that would have made – but expediency and vested interests were too strong for an expression of professional ethics and basic integrity.

  • Philip Waggett

    Want to know how committed the City of Burlington and Meed Ward are to public engagement? Today (Aug 25) I received a flyer from the City of Burlington entitled, ” Public Engagement on former Robert Bateman High School site”. When I opened it up, the first two meetings to sign up for were on August 22 and 23!!!! Is the City/Meed Ward really interested in public engagement when I get the notice days AFTER the event?

    • Jim Thomson

      The response to a question on why the mailer was after the event from the Getinvolvedburlington website. Councillor Stolte actually asked why the mailer was going out so late back when the draft engagement plan was reviewed by council. Is she clairvoyant?

      “The mailer was one of the many ways the City has informed residents about these engagement opportunities. Residents have been informed about the upcoming sessions as far back as Aug. 1 through the Bateman project page at; we encourage you to visit the project page and subscribe for updates. We also issued a media release, along with social media messages on Aug. 9 and issued an update through the Get Involved newsletter on Aug. 9, 10 and 18. Reoccurring social media posts are also being shared across City social media platforms. A print ad was also placed in the Burlington Post on Aug. 17 with more ads scheduled. Mobile signs were installed starting Aug. 14 at the new community centre as well as digital signs in our existing community centres.

      We do our best to plan engagement sessions that can fit different schedules with varying times and locations. The indoor visioning portion of this project has more engagement sessions than we normally do. There are still four more opportunities to provide input including an online session on Oct. 19, 7 p.m. There are no plans to add more engagement sessions.

      For anyone interested in providing community programming at the new community centre at the former Robert Bateman high school, they can fill out the online form and share their interest by 4:30p.m. Sept. 30, 2023.”

    • Lynn Crosby

      I still don’t have this mailer at all. A definite “nope” to your final question!