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Sam Merulla on Our Voice, Our Hamilton 3:29

After a week of being slammed in social media, Dialogue Partners — hosts of the much-lambasted Our Voice, Our Hamilton project — is changing its stance and issuing a forthright apology to the people of Hamilton, says managing director Stephani McCallum.

"We are humbled by the loudness of the voices we've heard," McCallum told CBC Hamilton. "We totally want to acknowledge the missteps we've made."

On Sunday afternoon, McCallum circulated open letters to citizens and council, as well as an FAQ on some of the issues her company has faced. You can read those documents here.

This comes just a day before council is expected to vote on whether or not to terminate her company's $376,000 service. City manager Chris Murray is set to bring a recommendation to council about Dialogue Partners at Monday's general issues committee meeting.

McCallum has requested to be a delegate at that meeting and speak on the company's behalf. Many councillors, most vocally Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla, have called for the firm to be fired.

What is HSR?

The Dialogue Partners project drew scathing criticism last week with the launch of the Our Voice, Our Hamilton website and social media campaign.

Using the Twitter account @ourhamilton, a staff member at the consulting firm asked "what is HSR?" in a tweet about Hamilton Street Railway, the city's transit system. The company said in a Facebook post Tuesday that it was just making sure it understood the tweet. Most users didn't see it that way.

The company's Pinterest board also featured a photo from Hamilton, Ohio, which the company said it didn't place there. Further investigation by residents revealed malicious code placed on the new website, which the company said was the result of a hacker.

'While we don't live there, we do know an awful lot about Hamilton.'—Stephani McCallum, managing director

The website was temporarily removed Wednesday night because of "offensive and inaccurate content," the city said in a media statement. McCallum told CBC Hamilton that the offensive content had been generated by users, not Dialogue Partners, as some speculated.

"Some comments were posted by users about a specific individual that were offensive," she said. "There was also just some foul language in general about the process."

Twitter users continued to fume about the situation throughout the week, using the #telloheverything hashtag to slag the company. Merulla called it "a stranger to competence."

Saying hello, part two

But McCallum doesn't see it that way. "We are not a stranger to competence," she said. "While we don't live there, we do know an awful lot about Hamilton."

Dialogue Partners caught plenty of flack for what many users called a "non-apology" about the situation — followed mostly by silence. McCallum says the decision not to step in to the online conversation was made in conjunction with the City Manager's Office and the local project team.

"But eventually, we said 'wait a minute, we need to have a conversation here," she said. "There needs to be an environment of respect."

And though she says there has been a wealth of important issues about the city presented by users online, McCallum says they're being lost in all the social media jousting.

"There are a large number of Hamiltonians that aren't being heard right now," she said. "They're being shouted down."

"We turned off our Facebook page because people were being intimidated."

'Lost the city at hello'

Merulla told CBC Hamilton that the city needs to regroup, terminate the contract and save the money spent on this project because the firm "lost this entire city at hello and there is no point in going forward from my perspective."

Coun. Brenda Johnson said if it came to a vote, she would vote to eliminate the 12-month contract.

"I wonder how many citizens of Hamilton will now participate seriously, or will they even accept the findings of this firm's results given their actions to date," she said.

Coun. Bernie Morelli said he is waiting on recommendations and comments from the city's senior management team.

"While I support citizen engagement, and this project in principle, at this point I would seriously consider canceling the contract based on the direct feedback I am receiving from residents," he said.

Staff getting trained

The project's purpose is to gather input on city services in light of an annual $195-million infrastructure deficit. The year-long project, awarded to Dialogue Partners in a request for proposals process, includes training 26 city staff on how to better gather input from the public.

The website, training and social media outreach is just the tip of the iceberg, McCallum says. In the last nine months, the company has also reportedly:

  • Conducted interviews with council and city managers
  • Created all the tools and materials for the city to use, including the Our Voice, Our Hamilton website
  • Condensed documents on the city's budget and city services into just 20 pages so that it can be better discussed by the public

McCallum acknowledges Monday's meeting might not go well. But she still plans to explain her position to council as best she can and hope for the best.

"I hope, after tomorrow, we walk back into the conversation," she said.