Restoring public trust in Bay 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.