'Angry-engaged' citizens present a new challenge for Calgary, but not a unique one

Yelling and swearing and even a death threat have come to characterize public-engagement sessions in Calgary, but the city is far from alone in seeing its civic gatherings devolve into uncivil behaviour, according to an American expert on public participation.

Council grapples with how to interact with an irate and often only partially-informed public

City of Calgary transportation spokesman Sean Somers, left, listens to some impassioned criticism of the southwest transitway project during a public information session in the Woodbine community. (CBC)

Yelling and swearing and even threats of violence have come to characterize public-engagement sessions in Calgary, but the city is far from alone in seeing its civic gatherings devolve into such uncivil behaviour, council heard Monday.

"Things are changing," said city manager Jeff Fielding, who held top administrative jobs in Kitchener, Burlington, and London, Ont., before taking on his current role in Calgary in 2014.

"People are not only engaged, but they're angry-engaged."

Fielding said he's observed a marked increase in "the degree of acrimony" in the public's behaviour over the past five years, in particular.

His comments came during a special council meeting on the city's public-engagement policies.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Monday's meeting had been planned months earlier but acknowledged the coincidental timing with the "elephant in the room" — last week's testy information session on the southwest transitway project.

The day after that public meeting, Nenshi announced all subsequent info sessions on the project would be cancelled due to verbal harassment and even threats of violence against city staff.

"I heard of 20-odd incidents that had happened, including the following: one member of the public saying about one of my colleagues, 'Where is that bitch? I'm going to strangle her,'" Nenshi said in explaining his decision.

The mayor also revealed a city employee had been physically assaulted at an earlier public-engagement session on the same project in October, with her clothing pulled at and her name tag ripped off.

'Berated, demeaned, physically assaulted'

The mayor didn't name that employee but she came forward via a public Facebook post, saying the pattern of behaviour at such sessions is nothing new.

"I have been berated, demeaned, physically assaulted and disrespected by complete strangers on too many occasions," Emma Stevens wrote.

"I'm sorry for the Calgarians that now won't get the chance to provide their input in person because of the behaviour of some of their neighbours," she added.

"But I'm also, frankly, relieved that I won't be put in a position that compromises my safety and well-being."

The city will continue to carry out online engagement as it finalizes plans for the bus rapid transit expansion in the southwest, but all in-person gatherings have been called off.

Fragmented media reinforces worldviews

The shift toward angrier people at public-engagement sessions has also been noticeable in the United States, according to public-participation specialist Wendy Green Lowe, who visited Calgary to work with council at Monday's meeting.

Lowe blamed fragmentation of media, in large part, for the growing lack of civility.

With so many sources of information now available, she said people often pick and choose what to believe, eroding the common ground once shared by even the most ideologically opposed citizens.

"When I was growing up, there were three channels on the television and all three of them provided news in an objective way — they tried very much to provide a balanced explanation of what was happening," she told council.

"Right now, people are choosing their news sources to affirm their worldview, and what that means is we don't have a level playing field in society's understanding of issues. People believe fundamentally different things about all kinds of topics."

Discussion or disruption?

Coun. Druh Farrell said some recent open houses have created unsafe situations, as large groups of agitated citizens gather in relatively cramped spaces.

"As a councillor, you're swarmed by people," she said. "And that puts certain individuals at great risk, I believe."

Mac Logan, the city's general manager of transportation, said last week's meeting on the southwest transitway, in particular, was unlike any he had seen.

"It's one of the only times I've ever seen a group of people in an engagement process try to disrupt the discourse with other people, who were either supportive or who were neutral and just coming for information," Logan said.

"I've never experienced that, in the last decade, certainly."

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