City of Port Alberni ponders social development

Social planning commission would outlast councils

Port Alberni city council is considering the establishment of a social planning or development commission, following a committe of the whole meeting on Monday, April 19.

Ron Jorgenson, a counsellor and a member of the Alberni Valley Social Planning Council, was in attendance to provide examples of various social planning councils and commissions in B.C. communities and explain what they do.

Jorgenson’s presence was a result of a committee of the whole meeting held in December, in which members of the public came forward to discuss a recent increase in theft of property, violent crime, substandard housing and people living at risk.

READ: Port Alberni businesses, RCMP air frustrations over crime

The purpose of the proposed commission is to look at a community in terms of its social issues, and develop a social plan and a long-term vision that will outlast administrations.

On Monday, Jorgenson went over the history of Port Alberni, which was very much a “work hard, play hard” town in its heyday. The town had a large resource base, which led to economic dependency—resource companies would often fund community projects because they had the money to do so.

Now in 2018, the town has problems with disrupted families, violence, sexual abuse and drug culture. “A lot that’s hidden down below,” Jorgenson summarized. “What I want you to keep in mind is that some of these problems are here now because of what happened back then.”

Port Alberni’s municipal government, he said, is struggling to find financial support and a way to replace aging infrastructure. Students are leaving the community because of a lack of jobs and education, which leaves a limited tax base to draw from. “The reality is, we’re losing some of our best minds,” said Jorgenson. “We lose a lot of their valuable contributions because we don’t have the resources here to hold them and to give them opportunities to work.”

In response to many of these social problems, there has been a large contribution by volunteer groups and agencies. Jorgenson described it as the city’s “saving grace,” as these agencies struggle to provide a coherent support system.

“It’s holding and catching a whole lot of the people who are falling through the cracks,” he said.

He envisions the commission as a tool that will provide council with additional information, bodies and expertise. It can also provide an umbrella organization that leads social change, coordinating different agencies and advocating for funds to support “on the ground” initiatives.

Municipal governments, Jorgenson said, tend to be focused on outcomes and cost benefits, where a social planning commission would give voice to parts of the community that council is not hearing from. “There are whole groups in this community that aren’t represented in this room,” he said.

The commission, he explained, isn’t just about expanding and developing new areas, but rebuilding and beautifying the areas that are struggling. It will look at problems from a social consciousness point of view, rather than a political point of view, and monitor the progress. There would be a role for directions to come down from council, but also for recommendations to come up from the commission.

“I think in any relationship, there needs to be dialogue,” Jorgenson said. “That goes back and forth.”

Councillor Jack McLeman was the only councillor who expressed opposition to the commission, with the concern that there wouldn’t be any action.

“I didn’t hear anything in the presentation that convinced me,” he said. “To me, it looks like it’s just a lot of people together talking. Not coming to conclusions, not really coming to a destination, just talking.”

Jorgenson responded to McLeman’s concerns with an invitation to join the commission. “Your thoughts are part of the reason I’m here,” he explained. “I’m very concerned that we do too much talking and not enough action. You will push us to action, and I think that action is important.”

The Alberni Valley Social Planning Council is a registered non-profit society with directors that represent different organizations, businesses and agencies within the Valley. A commission, as opposed to this existing council, would be appointed by city council and work with city council, but would continue to function after this city council dissolves.

Mark Aussem, a security analyst, was in the crowd. He said that he facilitated a town hall meeting last month and personally went into 153 businesses to hear their concerns.

“Everybody felt helpless because nobody was doing anything about [the crime],” he said. “That’s not true, but that’s the perception. Our city’s reputation right now is pretty bad. Most of that’s not justified.”

He emphasized that the city needs a goal and a vision in order to change. “What does the city want to be when it grows up, for lack of a better term,” he said. “There are a lot of things we can do, but the biggest thing is just that hope.”

During the meeting, Jorgenson brought up the metaphor of the wave and the particle. Port Alberni’s city council, he said, focuses on the drops that fall into the water, rather than the wave that spreads out and involves everyone in the community. Councillor Ron Paulson brought this metaphor back to close the meeting, suggesting that Port Alberni needs a commission that looks out at the solutions instead of the problems.

“We dwell on the problem,” he said. “We get mired in that drop of water. As far as a commission goes, I don’t see any downside to going in that direction.”

Do you think this commission would benefit Port Alberni? Vote in our online poll here.

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