The Morning After The Night Before: Post-inaugural Town Hall Blues

Town Halls Hamilton organizer M Adrian Brassington reflects on lessons learned during the first Town Hall meeting, An Evening with Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr.

By M Adrian Brassington
Published November 11, 2011

Preface/disclaimer: The opinions and viewpoints that follow are mine and mine alone. Were you to speak to anyone connected to 'An Evening With Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr', or more importantly, the vast majority of those at the event who proffered opinions, the consensus would be something quite different.

In the words of THH stalwart (and RTH contributor) Mike Borrelli, "107 people went out for coffee during Intermission. 102 came back. That is astounding."

More importantly, none of my 'disappointments' have anything to do with what any of the volunteers contributed. They rocked, and I am especially grateful for the time and efforts they provided.

To have a 'vision' - and I'm referring to an ambition or a goal, though the other meaning of the word surely has some connection here - is to be possessed of some singular expectations.

While these expectations might seem quite reasonable to the person having them, when these expectations don't get met, they may not get classified as 'failures' to others. I can't take issue with this. But then the Town Halls Hamilton endeavour has been my vision from the start, so I'm allowed to be disgruntled about how things turned out last night.

As the saying goes, 'The best laid plans of mice and men...'

I learned a lot last night.

I learned how easy it is to miscalculate, and how sizeable the knock-on effects can be.

I learned how important it is to stick to your instincts, that if you believe in what you're doing, that if the task's not merely an indulgence but something that you're compelled to do out of something far greater than ego or ambition, that it's vital to stay as close as possible to your gut feelings, because they're tied to the entire store of abilities and blessings that make it all possible in the first place.

I learned how searing it can be to feel someone else's frustrations at not getting what they were expecting...and how this connection can in fact reinforce your commitment to attempting what you're attempting.

I'd intentionally designed 'An Evening With Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr' with simplicity in mind. Barely beyond 'getting people in a room and talking', it was a 'game of two halves'.

The first half was comprised of an 'interview' between our moderator Stephanie Seagram and Councillor Farr, mining some biographical content, general questions concerning the entire ward and then rotating through questions specific to the six individual neighbourhood associations.

Then an intermission, then back for about three-quarters of an hour of audience-asked questions. Ending things off, a teeny-tiny set of closing comments from yours-truly.

Well, considering that the expected 'stage setup' I'd planned had the kibosh put to it even before the show had begun, I guess it should have come as no surprise that we were going to encounter other challenges as the evening unfolded.

The first glitch was the fact that we began a few minutes late, mostly because we weren't utterly insistent on getting under way at the appointed time.

Lesson Learned #1.

The second stumble was a result of a 'mock-up interview run-through' never having been done; my intent to provide some biographical glue wasn't entirely well-founded, because in the end, what people are at a town hall such as this for are solid answers to solid questions, not getting all warm-and-fuzzy with their elected official.

The building up of the relationship between Councillor and residents should mostly happen as a result of how he or she responds to the questions, with the biographical glue to be provided less as a result of pointed investigation than by ongoing narrative revelations.

Lesson Learned #2.

The third was the pace. Put another way, ensuring from the start that everyone understand that to get through several cycles of a six neighbourhood associations' questions, there is no time for 'expansion' or meandering or anything like that. Pithiness from the Councillor is paramount.

Lesson Learned #3.

So the off-pace progress had a knock-on effect on the number of questions that could be addressed. That meant the effectiveness of the first half - keeping in mind that this was mostly an internally-marketed event, promoted from within the six neighbourhood associations - wasn't just deeply hampered, it was rendered impotent. We didn't even get to the neighbourhood association-specific questions before it was clear we had to take a break.

I believe that in light of the above, I think I would have to list Lesson Learned #4 and #5: both have to do with the general effort of corralling questions from the neighbourhood associations.

The first is recognizing that to have the question-focus spread over six NAs is going to severely limit what can be addressed within 45-60 minutes, period. (I need to say here that I'm not sure I ever imagined an entire ward's NAs being hosts of a THH event, that I'd always seen it being one or two.) So depending on what's going on in the focus area, the number of questions that can possibly answered has a ceiling.

Secondly, there needs to be more ownership of the questions by the NAs. So that they should be submitted 'ranked' according to their importance, so there's no question which get priority. After all, these are their questions, their issues, about their neighbourhoods.

If for whatever reasons we can't get to the full complement, then we need something arbitrary in place to guide us.

Now, because we had made it clear that for the second half of the evening people could submit questions or step up to the podium and do the asking themselves, a compromised situation was made all the more complicated.

So when we got back into it post-intermission, I laid it all on the line to the audience, confessing the mistakes that had been made, begging for both forgiveness and indulgence, admitting that what we'd be able to get to would be teeny-tiny in comparison to what people may have come to the event (reasonably) expecting.

We decided to rotate the questions: one from the floor, one from the stack. I felt the best interludes were those where questions came from the audience, which was Lesson Learned #6: the very basis of a 'town hall' is the audience. As in 'not just listening, but asking questions, live-and-in-person.'

So the time spent with people asking their questions directly of the Councillor deserves to predominate.

(As throwaway Lessons Learned, #7: Water...and #8: for events at City Hall, nobody should have to worry about feeding the parking meters.)

I don't think I'm at all camouflaging at all my disappointment with last night's event in Council Chambers. But then, I'm Virgo-rising, which means I need for things to be just-so.

The Piscean in me, the creative fish that had a particular vision of 'An Evening With Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr' is still pulling a face. But that will fade, and with this exercise in debriefing myself here, I'm more and more confidant things will be much different next time.

Which brings me to the final portion of this article: What is next for Town Halls Hamilton?

Since the approaching holiday season is pretty much a write-off in terms of 'putting bums in seats' for community engagement efforts, THH will be assessing our inaugural event, incubating until the new year's arrival, and then looking at going at it full-force in 2012.

By this time next year, I'd like to have seen a full slate of ward-centric town halls as well as issue-specific ones, too.

I'm also hoping that coupled with these will be an effort to enhance the situation in Hamilton with respect to the neighbourhood and community associations...but I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, so I'll leave the reference at that.

I have to keep reminding myself of common sense sayings regarding disappointment.

'You don't ask, you don't get.'

'Nothing ventured, nothing gained.'

Or my favourite, courtesy of my brother: 'If you go about trying to do those things you'd like to look back on having accomplished, you'll never suffer from regret...only fatigue.'

M Adrian Brassington is a Hamilton writer.


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By Chillout (anonymous) | Posted November 11, 2011 at 23:04:42

Eh, don't knock yourself up. Noone expects these things to go off without any hitches. Live and learn for next time, is all.

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By Chillout (anonymous) | Posted November 11, 2011 at 23:07:04 in reply to Comment 71228

Errrmmm I guess I couldn't decide between "beat yourself up" and "knock yourself out" for that first bit and now I can't go back and change it.....

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By Tartan Triton (anonymous) | Posted November 12, 2011 at 09:21:00 in reply to Comment 71229

Still good advice. ;)

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted November 12, 2011 at 20:33:13

I thought the evening went just fine, with the exception (that you noted) of the getting to know Jason at the start. The fact that a vast majority returned after the break speaks volumes. I left the meeting feeling somewhat engaged and hope that there are many more to come. All in all it was time well spent.

Thank you.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 12, 2011 at 23:25:17

Having over a hundred people show up to your first attempt at anything in Hamilton is a roaring success, to say nothing of the scenic venue. I'd agree that the biographical parts dragged a bit, but all in all it was quite the experience.

In the future, what I'd most like to see a less councillor-centric design, perhaps with all the representatives of the NAs fielding questions and making statements along with the councillor.

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By JMorse (registered) | Posted November 13, 2011 at 20:35:02

I thought it was a great start. Your objective is clear. No doubt we will get there. I was not upset at the time spent. A necessary learning experience and starting off point.

Thanks for you efforts. I look forward to supporting them in the future.

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By Malex (anonymous) | Posted November 14, 2011 at 08:53:02

Hopefully there'll be a Ward 3 Town Hall meeting in the new year!

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By jcw (registered) | Posted November 14, 2011 at 16:45:09 in reply to Comment 71253

I hope the same for Ward 7.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 14, 2011 at 09:38:56

Yikes! I'm only seeing this a few days post-event, but as someone involved in putting it together, I have to say I'm not nearly as downbeat. Actually, I was pretty pleased with how things went.

Were there lessons to be learned? Absolutely, and I was sort of figuring that was 1/2 the point of this experiment: to test out a method of low-resource organizing and then work out the kinks. I had a 30min conversation with a lovely woman that started as a complaint about the lack of paid parking, but that morphed into a chat in which this woman, usually frustrated by the city's efforts at engagement, was complimenting Jason Farr's willingness to sit in front of a group of citizens and listen.

I think a decent method of rotating through questions was emerging near the end, and though some stricter rules or time-limits might help (sorry, a "two-part question" is still TWO questions :P), I think the Town Hall covered a remarkable number of topics in only 2 hours.

People were engaged, and they came back for more even when given a prime opportunity to escape at the intermission. And bonus: No pitchforks were brandished, and no torches were lit.

Though Adrian will have done this in person, thanks again to the Neighbourhood Associations, Stephanie Seagram, and Councilor Farr for their participation.

And from "behind the scenes", I would like to publicly thank volunteers Amy, Alessandra & Heather, who helped greet attendees, and the BNA, Homegrown Hamilton, and the Freeway Cafe for graciously providing food and drinks (as well as Mike from City Hall who saved my butt with pitchers of water).

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