By Andrea McDowell
Public consultation is an increasingly important part of environmental assessments and permitting in Ontario. And guidelines, even when they seem clearly described in documentation, are often shifting targets that make it hard for a proponent to know when they are done. Clearly, this is less important when the project is either not controversial or enjoys community support. However, a small but vocal minority of project opponents can make a project’s permitting phase much longer and much more expensive. Continuing public consultation until the local community is supportive of the project is often impossible; sometimes, no commitments except project withdrawal will make a community happy. What then?
1. Engage as productively as possible with whoever will speak with you
Criticism—sometimes personal—is an inevitable part of public consultation for any controversial project. Unfortunately, from the perspective of government reviewers, it is not a sufficient reason to disengage. It is imperative to maintain a professional and respectful tone regardless of how the public treats the project team (although obviously, where laws are broken or if safety concerns are raised, involving security teams or the police may be appropriate). It is also imperative to keep ears open to the concerns underlying the invective, and try to provide relevant information and answer questions.
In addition, there will always be a brave few who are willing and able to speak with the project team about concerns and questions without personal attacks; find those people, and build relationships with them wherever possible.
2. Go above and beyond, and be seen to go above and beyond
Technically, it may be enough to run one or two open houses with poster boards to fulfill legal requirements, but where there is considerable public concern about a project, this will be nowhere near enough to obtain project approval. You may need to consider extra meetings, or meetings in a different format (workshops, question-and-answer sessions, etc.). You may want smaller meetings with particular interest groups to air out their concerns more thoroughly. You may want to create a Community Liaison Council to give local community members an ongoing voice and role in the project. Consider other options, and be flexible within the constraints of your budget and timeline.
3. Answer all questions promptly
Technically, it also may be sufficient to address concerns and questions in the Consultation Report or the Environmental Assessment Report, and not discuss with individual community members. However, this will increase anger in the community and in turn increase pressure on the MOECC not to approve the project.
Also, be sure to keep complete and accurate records of all consultation activities—emails, letters, phone calls, meetings, etc. Consider recording and transcribing public meetings in order to be able to demonstrate accurately and transparently what transpired later on. PDF all letters and emails, both incoming and outgoing, and file them so they can be easily found at a later date.
4. Keep talking to the MOECC about your consultation plans
If the MOECC has ample opportunities to help you create or revise your consultation plan when problems first arise, they are far more likely to approve of what you’ve done later on. Keep talking to them. Warn them about issues or events that may lead the public to inundate them with complaints. Provide them with the project information they need to respond to complaints when they are received.
5. Incorporate requested project changes wherever possible
It is tempting to treat public consultation like public relations, and make it a communications exercise where positive project messages are delivered to the community. While this is an important element of public consultation, it is in no way enough; from the perspective of government agencies, it is critical to listen to the community as well, and there is no better proof that you have listened than being able to point to changes to the project made as a result of public requests or information.