Editor: I am writing about the Chatham-Kent municipal council’s questionnaire on woodlot preservation.
It’s not that I object to being asked for input. I frequently offer input to council, whether they want it or not. But I do object to the structure of this questionnaire, and to it being issued without important supplemental information.
After successive councils have dropped the ball on this issue, we are now in full crisis and, instead of taking responsibility, council seems to want the community to develop the policy, and to scapegoat one another. This is unacceptable.
Is a questionnaire the right way to develop public policy? Will a questionnaire resolve this issue?
While a questionnaire is certainly a good way to collect community input, that input is only as valuable if the community is well informed. Do the citizens of this community have sufficient knowledge and information to make informed decisions in these matters? I maintain that they do not.
The community deserves to know, for example, that what is being asked of farmers relative to woodlot preservation is not at all out of the ordinary. And, since Chatham-Kent still seems to be the only Ontario community with no woodlot regulation, don’t we deserve to know how other municipalities are dealing with this issue before we weigh in on developing our own local policy?
Successive councils, unwilling to alienate voters on either side of the issue, have consistently shirked responsibility, leaving it for the next elected council to deal with it. Finally, after much public outcry, they have been pressed into developing a policy within six months. Public input is, quite appropriately, part of the process. However, from the look of this questionnaire, and the way that it is structured, my suspicion is that council is already skewing the results.
Let’s look at the questionnaire itself. Who is most likely to respond? The first three questions are quite telling:
- Do you support the preservation of woodlots in Chatham-Kent?
- Do you support the introduction of restrictions on property rights to preserve woodlots in Chatham-Kent?
- Are you prepared to pay more in taxes to preserve woodlots in Chatham-Kent?
Not surprisingly, no matter how highly they value local woodlots, many taxpayers may balk at paying higher taxes to compensate farmers for their preservation.
Many in our community have been going through some tough times, exacerbated, of course, by the pandemic. Very few will want to see their taxes go up.
It would not be surprising, then, that many citizens might fail to complete the questionnaire beyond question #3. Who is most likely to complete the questionnaire? The farmers, of course! And that is why I suggest that, in its structure, the results of this questionnaire are already skewed.
In the subsequent questions, it is the farmers who will establish a policy that is most favourable to them on such important issues as: preservation strategy, form and amount of incentivization, size of woodlots to be regulated, location and amount of tree removal permitted, setback distance from natural habitats and waterways, exemptions, permit approval and decision processes, and administration.
Finally, and tellingly, in my view, the last question asks participants: “Will you support a policy based on the results of this survey?” Given its design, I very well may not! But before that happens, I will most certainly express to council my views. This questionnaire is simply not good enough.