Amid concerns of a lack of transparency from residents on the status of a massive 800-acre blasting quarry application in Cataract, freedom of information documents reveal Mayor Annette Groves and select Town of Caledon staff were given media “coaching” from a strategic communications firm.

An email dated April 12th from Catherine McLean, Director of Community Services, to Antonietta Minichillo, Chief Planner and Director of Planning; Stacey Abbott, Corporate Communications Manager; Stephanie McVittie, Manager of Development and Design; and Steven Burke, Senior planner, explained the next steps for the town as it moved forward with an application from Canada Building Materials (CBM) which is seeking approval for a massive quarry project in the town. One of the steps was to prepare for an April 18th meeting held by the Forks of the Credit Preservation Group (FCPG), which Mayor Groves and staff had agreed to attend to present information and respond to concerns from the community on the Town’s stance on the application.

“Redbrick to provide coaching to Mayor and staff; Planning to do a brief presentation,” the email states. 

According to its website, Redbrick is a strategic communications firm that provides “counsel” to a wide variety of public and private sector clients. Its clients include the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, Chartered Professional Accountants, Associations of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), and many Ontario municipalities including Barrie, Cambridge, London, Mississauga, Waterloo and the Region of Peel. 

“Elected officials are expected to communicate well, often on complicated issues. When talking about topics that are important to their communities, it is standard practice to prepare in advance,” Andrea Montgomery, Vice President of Redbrick, told The Pointer in an email statement. “Our work involves helping elected officials to anticipate possible questions so that they can deliver accurate, plain language information.”

It is not uncommon for elected officials to undergo media training, especially when they are new to speaking publicly about sensitive and oftentimes controversial topics. However, the timing of Redbrick’s hiring for messaging and communications surrounding the blasting quarry raises a number of red flags for residents who have already dealt with numerous complaints about the less-than-transparent nature of the Town’s handling of the application.

The Town received the application from CBM, a subsidiary of the Brazilian company Votorantim Cimentos, in December 2022. It was deemed complete, meaning all of the necessary studies and data were present, on March 23. A formal notice of the application was delivered to residents living within a 120-kilometre radius of the site on March 28. 

But while residents were informed of the application following proper procedure as set out in the Planning Act, many felt blindsided by a council elected to serve the interests of local residents. It was later revealed in an email obtained by The Pointer, sent by Mayor Groves on March 26, that she herself was not informed by Town staff about the complete application, and only learned about it through the media.

“This further creates a lack of trust between us and the public,” she wrote to Minichillo. “I made a commitment to the residents that everything will be done above board and they would be kept in the loop and finding out about this by reading it in the local paper creates even more distrust and lack of transparency.”

Groves later told The Pointer that council is not generally notified about applications as staff are delegated the authority to handle such work and bring a staff report forward to council when necessary. But given the widespread interest in the controversial CBM application and the significance it has in the community, she was caught off guard when the project flew under the radar. 

At the April 18 meeting held by the FCPG, the Mayor apologized for the lack of transparency and the Town committed to providing sufficient updates to residents through its website and through attendance at community meetings (at the next meeting residents were told there was no update from staff). It’s now clear that Town officials were being coached on what to say to residents in advance of the public meeting.

“The Town of Caledon has a long-standing relationship with Redbrick for ongoing support with communications training,” a spokesperson for the Town told The Pointer in an email statement.

The Town did not answer questions about how long Redbrick has been used, why coaching was needed prior to the April 18 meeting, who received the coaching and how much the services cost.

“I have heard of situations where persons who may have difficulty speaking in public have taken courses or training, but possibly not a Mayor and staff in relation to one topic,” Caledon resident Kate Hepworth, who is president of the Caledon Village Association and ran for the Ward 1 council seat in the October election, said. “I cannot and would not pretend to speak for everyone, but scripted communication gets old fast. There is a huge part of the population who are paying very close attention to the quarry, and the placated response has not lasted long given that there appears to be little if any communication from the Town since the April meeting.”

Barney Beckett, another Caledon resident, said it is premature to comment on the impact coaching has had, while residents were promised full transparency.

Mayor Groves told The Pointer she took part in the communications training, but she says it did not impact what she said to community members on April 18 or at any other point in the process.

“I prefer to just talk to people and have those conversations and answer any questions as they come up,” she said. “I prefer just to hear what the residents have to say, and when they’re angry, I’m okay with them being angry as well. Let’s just have a very open conversation.” 

She says she relies on staff for technical information like the significance of the 120 days between when an application is deemed complete and when a decision is to be made, and other technicalities within the Planning Act that she is not an expert on, but she does not rely on others for how she should speak to her constituents and what information she gives them.

“I just believe in just telling the truth. Saying what it is,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who it is. I meet with anyone and everyone, and I don’t want to be scripted.”

Beckett, who has been closely involved with the blast quarry issue, said he trusts the mayor and other officials to represent the best interest of Caledon residents, many of whom are deeply opposed to the proposed project.

“[Groves] doesn’t seem to me like the type of person that’s gonna go and fall into anybody’s pocket,” he said. “There’s an ethic that they all have to live by, in every government.”

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 03, 2023 at 16:31

This item reprinted with permission from   The Pointer   Mississauga, Ontario
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