Restor­ing pub­lic trust in Bay Roberts

The Compass - - OPINION - Terry Roberts

The newly minted town coun­cil in Bay Roberts has be­gun its four-year term, with high hopes of con­tin­u­ing the trend of steady growth, im­proved ser­vices and a rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity liv­ing.

But this coun­cil will have some work to do when it comes to restor­ing the pub­lic con­fi­dence that was dam­aged dur­ing last month’s mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion cam­paign, fol­low­ing the ex­plo­sive rev­e­la­tion that the town twice pur­chased a par­cel of land off L. T. Stick Drive ( for­merly CB Ac­cess Road). The town has plans to es­tab­lish a busi­ness park on the site.

This is­sue dates back to 2005 and spans three dif­fer­ent may­ors, but the peo­ple that mat­ter most — those who pay taxes to the Town of Bay Roberts, the peo­ple who ex­pect their hard-earned dol­lars to be man­aged wisely and com­pe­tently — were not made aware of the trou­bling de­tails un­til it was raised at a can­di­dates’ fo­rum, mid­way through the cam­paign. News that this small town of 5,800, with an an­nual bud­get of just over $7 mil­lion, may have un­nec­es­sar­ily paid a res­i­dent $250,000-plus for land he may not have right­fully owned, was greeted with shock, anger and dis­be­lief.

And just last year, it was learned, the town agreed to pur­chase the land once again — as part of a larger par­cel — from the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment for nearly $277,000. Ouch! Do res­i­dents of Bay Roberts have a right to be an­gry? Yes they do. Was this is­sue mis­han­dled? Ab­so­lutely, and on many lev­els. Fact is, ev­ery elected leader who played any role in this mat­ter shares some of the blame.

How­ever, the is­sue we care most about is trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity. Ev­ery­one makes mis­takes, and hope­fully we learn from them.

In this case, town lead­ers did a poor job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with cit­i­zens, and there’s a per­cep­tion — rightly or wrongly — that all in­volved were hop­ing the mat­ter would qui­etly fade away. But the worst pos­si­ble sce­nario unfolded, and once it did, there was no way of do­ing any se­ri­ous dam­age con­trol. The is­sue came out dur­ing an un­con­trolled set­ting, cre­at­ing a frenzy of crit­i­cism and un­ease that will dog the town for many months to come. It also re­in­forced a pub­lic per­cep­tion that politi­cians can­not be trusted.

Of course, there was a bet­ter way, and we’ve been em­pha­siz­ing this with mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers for some time. Sure, take credit and raise the flag when you suc­ceed, but quickly fall on your sword and ask for for­give­ness if you mess up. And above all else, be open and ac­count­able.

The later is what should have hap­pened in Bay Roberts, and the per­fect time for this was last year, when coun­cil passed a res­o­lu­tion, agree­ing to pur­chase the land for a sec­ond time. Some­one around the coun­cil ta­ble should have called a halt to the pro­ceed­ings and of­fered a full ex­pla­na­tion.

It could have started like this: “We are pleased to have fi­nal­ized a deal for this land, but we have some ex­plain­ing to do …”

There still would have been anger and shock, but there would have been no sug­ges­tion of a cover-up. In gen­eral, peo­ple re­spect those who take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their ac­tions, whether they are right or wrong.

The town could have been out front on the mat­ter, con­trolled the de­bate and still have been re­spect­ful of any le­gal mat­ters that are be­fore the courts.

It’s our hope that mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers through­out the re­gion learn a les­son from this pub­lic re­la­tions night­mare, and it’s re­as­sur­ing that the con­tro­versy was one of the first is­sues broached by Mayor Philip Wood dur­ing a swear­ing in cer­e­mony on Oct. 8.

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