Hamilton Has a Political Communications Problem

Hamilton has a hard time with large civic projects. A major part of the problem is the city’s inability to manage political communications.

By Andrew Richardson
Published April 26, 2017

The City of Hamilton has a problem and poor political communication is the culprit. It's a problem that has shaped many of Hamilton's large civic debates, such as the ongoing Light Rail Transit (LRT) debate, the stadium debacle, or the Red Hill Valley Expressway debates.

It's not necessarily a problem that focuses on any one particular faction of city councillors, but rather it seems to be a chronic civic condition that the city has not been able to shake.

Over the last year, City of Hamilton and Metrolinx staff have crisscrossed Hamilton in a series of events designed to gather public feedback and communicate information regarding the planned LRT line. The staff did their jobs well, but in some cases City Councillors opposed to the project used the events as an opportunity to voice their concerns in such a way designed to engage constituents to oppose the project.

We may begrudge and disagree with the councillors opposed to the project, but politicians will be political and City and Metrolinx staff are not. They are simply not equipped by training, or by virtue of their positions, to engage in political back-and-forth to defend the project from such political attacks.

As unfair as it may seem, opposition politicians used their situational leverage and power to sow doubt.

Since the point of this piece is to not lay blame on anyone - and since the problem is larger than one project it would be pointless to do so - I want to focus on a constructive lesson for the future: political communication matters.

Political communication as a larger theme can be broken down into three more precise categories: Issues Management, Constituent Communications, and Embracing Transparency.

Issues Management

Big projects will be political. It's up to city leadership to anticipate issues and have a plan to respond to them effectively in an efficient manner.

For example, it should have been anticipated that anti-LRT councillors would use opportunities to discredit the province's investment in LRT, even to the point of tolerating ridiculous attacks (such as comparing LRT to AIDS). Responses to political attacks should be factual, rapid, and conducted by politicians and political staff.

But more to the point, the mayor and city councillors seem to lack the resources to stay on top of every developing political issue. Particularly in the case of the mayor's office, there can be little doubt that communications staff are strapped handling the large amount of basic communication that running a city requires.

At the very least, the mayor's office should be afforded the funds, or otherwise organized, to include a Director of Issues Management: someone who is tasked with the political combat required to defend the mayor's political priorities from ambush and who can anticipate political problems.

Since this would apply to any future mayor regardless of their priorities, it is hard to see how dedicating funds to such a position would be seriously controversial.

Constituent Communications

Communication isn't just the responsibility of staff, and on balance the larger burden rests with City Council and the Mayor. City politicians need to do a better job of engaging their constituents directly: more town hall events, more canvassing, more phone calls.

There is no excuse for not engaging directly and often. Better constituent engagement will mean that councillors will be better able to engage residents and deliver project-related messages while simultaneously receiving real time feedback.

The depth and breadth of high quality constituent engagement will improve the decision-making process and relieve at least some of the criticism relating to transparency and accountability, while marking a large step towards improving City Hall's political communication efforts.

Embracing Transparency

This leads me to my last point: embrace transparency. There has been discord over the years concerning how and whether or not to stream council meetings, committee meetings, or other official city proceedings.

This hasn't served Hamilton's politicians well, it's made relationships rockier than they ought to have been, and has needlessly complicated Hamiltonians' access to their civic institutions.

City politicians should embrace cameras, questions, and journalists as an opportunity to spread their message. Not every journalist will like you, or agree with you, or buy the spin you're selling, but the fact that they are engaging with you buys you political opportunity.

Political communication isn't always about having your words repeated verbatim, sometimes it's good enough (or downright ideal) just to be seen to be engaged.

I sincerely hope that the political lessons of the LRT project and other past civic issues are not lost on city leadership. It won't be the last time an issue of this scale comes up.

Andrew Richardson is a public affairs and communications professional with grassroots organizing experience and was born, raised, and lived in Hamilton for 30 years. He is a graduate of both McMaster and Queen's Universities. Andrew has helped organize successful political campaigns in Hamilton and Toronto.


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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted April 26, 2017 at 06:25:09

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By robbyjv (registered) | Posted April 26, 2017 at 15:35:22 in reply to Comment 121362

Hi Jim, I know I'm probably wasting my time here, but here is point by point myth busting of your post. Many of the concerns you and many others keep spouting are addressed by the many reports, but guessing you haven't read those.

Myth: Ridership is down and this plan dumps bike lanes for more car lanes at Dundurn. Fact: Ridership is slightly down likely as a result of a fare increase and the fact that the system still does not provide great service. Also, the loss of bike lanes is not accurate, they are being temporarily removed or relocated. Once LRT is in place there will not be fewer bike lanes that there currently are.

Myth: We need LRT to build new sewers. Fact: this was never part of the original argument, but the fact that construction would require the replacement of a significant amount of infrastructure is an ancillary benefit. This was also only raised to satisfy Councillors and citizens from other Wards who wanted to know "what's in it for me?" The fact that we will have brand new infrastructure including sewers along the route means any funds for the next 20-30 years that would have been spent on this can now be spent elsewhere, including their Wards. Also, if we wanted to "fix sewers to fix sewers" along this stretch then we would also have to pay 100% of the cost, not Metrolinx.

Myth: The jobs are temporary construction jobs, the HSR will lose jobs and any development dollars will benefit only a sliver of Hamilton's population; rich developers.

Fact: Construction is slated to take 5+ years, this is hardly temporary and assumes these employees would not be involved in other projects that will come as a direct result of development caused by this project or future BLAST network phases. HSR divers are losing jobs, this remains to be seen, but the city seems committed to using the extra buses to expand service on other routes, so seems that they will just be driving other routes. Yes developers do stand to gain, but so does the entire city through economic growth (growing population, new jobs, customers supporting business).

Myth: As a transit project it is bad plan (Summarized here a bit) Fact: During peak hours B-Line is maxed out with some riders (albeit fewer than before) getting passed by full buses and many delays due to traffic volumes and buses using the same lanes as cars. There is already sufficient ridership along the route to support the LRT and make it cost effective. The LRT allows for future growth while adding more buses is not feasible since it will case further traffic congestion.

Hope this helps you reevaluate you position Jim, but I am inclined to believe that you aren't about to let facts stand in the way of your opposition.

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