On March 15, along with reporter Olivia Rutt, I met with Erin Mayor Allan Alls and CAO Nathan Hyde to try to resolve some issues that were clearly leading to an increasingly strained relationship.
From the meeting two prominent themes emerged: Hyde and Alls felt the Advertiser’s coverage was at times overly critical and Olivia and I felt the town needed to do a better job communicating with residents through this Newspaper.
Much of the hour-long conversation was dominated by Alls and Hyde vowing to improve communication (largely through a recently-hired communications officer) and insisting the recent departure of more than 20 town employees (some quit, others were fired) is somehow a positive News story that helps the town become “future ready.”
We did not initially print any material from that meeting, preferring instead to leave the conversation private, hoping it could be the first step to an improved relationship benefitting everyone involved.
Yet, seven weeks later, it appears it was all for naught, as Erin officials continue to trample on openness and transparency, the very ideals they regularly espouse.
For example, we made it clear during the March meeting that it was unacceptable to force a reporter to communicate with the CAO via email, which has become common practice since Hyde was hired a year ago (our reporter has not once reached Hyde directly by phone and he rarely returns calls).
So what was the ingenious solution to this problem? The Advertiser still has to send emails, but now to Jessica Spina, the town’s new communications officer.
And when fortunate enough to actually schedule an appointment to speak with the CAO by phone (Erin is the only municipality in the county to require scheduled CAO conversations), our reporter is asked to email questions ahead of time – you know, to provide ample time to prepare for evasion.
And when we want to speak with a department head, the staff members actually capable of answering our specific inquiries, Spina has run interference, exacerbating frustrations.
Instead of improving communication, this new position has further eroded an already-intolerable situation (as we suspected last summer when it was created).
Erin officials continually go out of their way to prevent even basic information from reaching the media, and thus residents. The most recent example is the town’s decision to contract out its water services.
If it really is the amazing cost-saving manoeuvre officials claim it is, why the secrecy about the details, process and the justification for the decision?
One senior staff member appears to have been told point-blank not to speak to the Advertiser, and we suspect that person is not alone.
It all adds up to a ludicrous situation that needs to end immediately.
The Advertiser Newsroom has over 80 years of combined experience dealing with municipalities across southwestern Ontario, and none of us has experienced these problems elsewhere. Not once. Ever.
But in Erin this behaviour is commonplace. Accepted. Encouraged even.
A few residents who regularly attend council and interact with staff may be aware of the situation, but we think, particularly with an election later this year, all Erin residents should know how bad things are under the current regime.
They should be appalled and demand answers from their mayor and councillors. After all, they certainly won’t get any answers from senior staff – even if they email.
“Future ready”? Not even close.