COLUMN: In praise of clarity
Boiled down, the task of a reporter is to clearly communicate to readers what’s happened — or better yet happening — in their respective communities, province, country or world.
The concept of what’s happening is a bit of an umbrella term, encompassing not only the requisite details of say a car crash, but also the context for that crash (weather conditions, traffic or alcohol consumption, for example). If possible, any changes made as a result of the incident are important to note as well.
But that’s the gig. Things occur and we tell you.
The longer I’m at this job, the more fixated I become on how others communicate. That focus, and the nitpicking of grammar and word choice that it invariably produces, routinely infuriates friends, family and girlfriends. Yet I can’t help myself.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that writers sometimes make mistakes. And the quest to be first to break every story doesn’t help things. But perfection remains the goal.
Because of this focus, I’m critical of those whom I feel should be able to articulate their ideas effectively. One target of my criticism recently has been Port Metro Vancouver, in particular its poor handling of the Low Level Road re-design process last spring and summer.
It was, and still is, beyond me how a company as large as PMV (despite assertions by staff that it is a small organization that manages a lot of interests) could be so bad at engaging the public and presenting to council in the hopes of getting the green light for a large-scale project.
As most will recall, council rejected PMV’s proposal in the summer, voting only to allow a new entrance into the Neptune/Cargill terminals. The elevated road, expanded rail system, Spirit Trail connections and overpass in the area of St. Andrews Avenue were voted down.
What happened next took many in the Moodyville and South Slope neighbourhoods, the communities most affected by the proposed work, by surprise. Port staff came back to council and received $1 million to help do the work — a slope stability analysis and a traffic noise report, for instance — it should have done right the first time.
Along with the thorough reports PMV was told the city’s money would help ensure got done, port staff were given another clear message: engage the community.
Not long after council’s directions were given, PMV got to work. A series of hour-long sessions at the Café for Contemporary Art were held and residents were given the opportunity to suggest ways the two sides could work together and, hopefully, achieve some design that made everyone happy. The port had, it seemed, gotten the message.
That was in August. What’s happened since?
Well, Tony Barber, the city’s manager of engineering, planning and design, told me recently that port and city staff have been working for quite a few months preparing for a late January update to council and a public engagement process scheduled to begin in February. What the programming for that process is, he wasn’t sure. He did share that the road has been lowered east of St. Andrews by four metres.
Dennis Bickel, the port’s senior manager of gateway competitiveness, echoed Barber’s sentiments in a phone interview last week. Port and city staff have been working feverishly, he said, and changes to the original designs have been made.
The St. Andrews Avenue overpass, for instance, has been moved to St. Georges Avenue, and all attempts to ensure the road stay as low as possible are being made. But, he said, the greatest challenges in that regard are being encountered at the western portion of the Low Level Road, the area where the planned elevation would come closest to homes.
The port has also established an online forum, porttalk.ca, intended to be a vehicle for updates and conversations on the project. So far, however, the forum hasn’t exactly been a hot bed of activity. At press time, there were a total of 25 comments on the site, two of which belong to Cindy McCarthy, a port employee (one of those answers is actually a defence of porttalk.ca as an adequate place for conversation).
In case I missed something and this forum is but one example of how PMV has reached out to the community, I figured I’d call some residents and hear from them.
Amanda Nichol, former council hopeful and resident of the 400-block of East First Street, put things rather simply: “Nope, nothing. Aside from an email [sent to her on Dec.13] and the forum, there’s been nothing. And yes, I would have expected a lot more.”
Michael Binkley, a neighbor of Nichol’s, said the community’s been relying on city staff for information. The port, he said, has been quiet.
“Seems like they are up to the same old tricks,” he said. “Blindsiding everybody.”
On the one hand, the fact the city and the port have been working so closely appears to be positive. Detailed information the city requires (and paid for, remember) to make this decision will likely come as a result of the apparent tight collaboration.
But the residents still feel they’re in the dark. The city must ensure they don’t feel that way by the time the public engagement process is done and a decision, expected in March, is made. They are voters and they are taxpayers. That $1 million came, in part, from them.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave anyone involved much time. And clarity, as I’ve come to learn, requires some.