How bad is city bureaucrat-ese? Read the sentence with 249 words

You shouldn't have to be a lawyer to understand the city's public planning notices, and it's making a new promise to change that. Can you figure out the sentence from a city notice that has 249 words?

Can you make sense of the sentence with 249 words?

This Love Your City public notice won a Dazzling Notice Award in 2014. The City of Hamilton will soon launch a new template for public notices so they are in plain language and easier to understand.

Durand neighbourhood activist Janice Brown was frustrated this month when she got a city notice so complicated that even a lawyer couldn’t understand it.

No one on her neighbourhood association board, including a lawyer and former committee of adjustment chair, could make out what it said about a major proposed project. It took Brown 31 emails with city staff to figure out the message.

The city is looking to put an end to that.

Planning staff will soon begin writing public notices in plain language—an initiative that could expand to other areas of the city bureaucracy.

The notices will still have the necessary legalese at the bottom, but the important part will be at the top, and in plain language.

I could not make heads nor tails of it. I had no idea what exactly they wanted.- Janice Brown, president, Durand Neighbourhood Association- Janice Brown, president, Durand Neighbourhood Association

“This will have who, what and why they’re applying, and what they’re proposing to do,” Robichaud said. “Then it will follow through with the technical aspects.”

It’s starting with committee of adjustment notices, which are required for property-related matters such as minor variances. If the template is successful, it will be used elsewhere in the city.

Committee of adjustment notices are “very heavy,” Robichaud said.

His new test is whether his parents would understand the notice if they read it. “If the answer is no, then we’re not doing a good job of communicating with the public."

That’s a relief for Brown, who regularly deals with densely worded notices. And the recent notice about City Square, a three-phase condo development in Durand, was one of the worst.

“When you see something like this, it is so totally frustrating and it’s such a waste of one’s time,” she said.

The notice was advertising a public meeting on Feb. 5 at 1:50 p.m., but no one who received it was even sure if they should attend.

An excerpt: “Lot area, lot width, lot line determination, maximum and minimum number of units, building height, building yards/setbacks, landscaped areas, parking and loading regulations and accessory buildings, shall be from the original lot lines of Phases/Buildings 2 and 3 and not from property boundaries or internal to lines created by registration of a plan of condominium…”

“It was almost impossible to understand,” Brown said. “I could not make heads nor tails of it. I had no idea what exactly they wanted.” She consulted her local councillor, who didn’t know what it meant either.

Brown eventually learned that the notice was to draw lot lines so the buildings would be considered separate properties.

“As volunteers, we don’t have that kind of expertise,” she said.

The template is a good start, she said. “They really do need to make the notices clearer so that at first reading, we as residents have an understanding of what the developer is asking for.”

It’s not just an issue in Hamilton, said Jason Thorne, general manager of planning and economic development. In Toronto, a group started the Dazzling Notice Awards to recognize effective public notices.

The City of Hamilton won a “playful design” award in 2014 for its Love Your City “Transforming our city through culture” public workshop.


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