Hamilton city council has decided to end its contract with Ottawa consulting firm Dialogue Partners.
The city and Dialogue Partners have agreed that no more money will be paid to the company. So far the city has paid $242,000 for their services.
The city plans to move forward with the public outreach project but will be using city staff and, possibly, local businesses, once they decide what they need.
The decision was announced at a meeting held Monday afternoon, following an in camera council meeting two weeks ago after which council said city manager Chris Murray would report back with a suggestion on how best to continue the project.
In a press release sent out on Monday afternoon Murray said, "We can all agree that the public launch of this initiative did not go well for a variety of different reasons.”
He added, "it is important to recognize that Dialogue Partners has provided us useful information and a sound strategy for completing this process. While we will be working with new partners going forward, I want to acknowledge the work undertaken to get us to this point and offer my thanks."
City councillors asked questions, but there was no debate on the decision. Council unanimously agreed that, though unfortunate, the move to part ways was a necessary step. Many said they felt the initial reaction from social media was harsh.
"To me, it just spun out of control. Mistakes do happen," Councillor Scott Duvall said.
Councillor Lloyd Ferguson expressed similar sentiments.
"I feel bad for Dialogue Partners. Some of the social media people were harsh," Ferguson said, calling the scandal a "dark thundercloud" that has plagued council.
Murray said they hope to re-launch the project in the second quarter and wrap it up before the end of the year.
While they hope to keep the work largely internal, in order to keep the project within its $134,000 remaining budget, he said if they need further external work, they hope to engage the Hamilton community.
"If we need some help, we will certainly make sure that there’s every opportunity to involve local people,” he said.
The public consultation project — called Our Voice, Our Hamilton — drew fire earlier this month, largely from the Hamilton social media community.
Dialogue Partners asked for clarification on the meaning of HSR (Hamilton Street Railway) through the @ourhamilton Twitter account. It also had photos of other Hamiltons on the project's Pinterest page and malicious code on its website.
While the website content was attributed to a hacking incident, Dialogue Partners never provided an explanation for the Pinterest photos, claiming they didn’t know how they ended up on their board. This was the tipping point for councillor Jason Farr.
"They admitted in open session that they have nine employees and still to this day they can't identify who put those images there," he said. "I think we're doing the right thing."
The decision to part ways was not a firing, Murray clarified, but was a mutual decision between the city and the firm that they both agreed was the best option.
As well, all information the firm gathered during the research for the project is property of the city and will be used moving forward, he said.
Murray added the city hopes to learn from its mistakes, but defended their ability to successfully utilize social media tools, claiming the errors were not due to ignorance of social media on the part of city staff.
“I don’t think there’s ignorance at all,” he said, pointing to the economic development staff as an example of successful social media strategy used by the municipality.
Still, he said they hope to engage more web-savvy members of the public to improve their social media practices.
“I think the best thing for us to do is to sit down with some of the local experts that have ideas as to how we can make sure that this thing, when it gets relaunched, happens in a way that will allow us to be more successful,” he said.
“As an organization, we’re going to learn from things that don’t go well.”