Mayor Bennett Engages in First Ever #TwitterTownHall

After two years in office, Mayor Bennett released his Mid Term Report to the public to be read, scrutinized, and reacted to. But this year he decided to do something a little different.

Bennett took to Twitter last Monday from 11am to 12pm to answer community member’s questions about the report. It was the first time a Peterborough mayor had done this using social media.

The report, released on the city’s website the preceding Thursday, detailed how far Bennett and city council have come in achieving the 45 proposals promised by the mayor at the beginning of his term. These proposals include areas such as transit, infrastructure, marketing Peterborough to the world, affordable housing and employment opportunities. According to the report, 39 of those 45 (86.6%) were either achieved or substantially achieved.

The report points out that it is “by its very nature, a subjective assessment,” i.e. not everyone will agree with the report’s findings. This was certainly evident by the questions Bennett received from local Twitter users.

Many Twitter users felt that some items marked as “achieved” ought to be referred to more appropriately as “ongoing.” The 407 highway expansion project, for example, is due to be finished by 2020 according to the Mid Term Report, but is at the same time considered achieved. Bennett justified the move, arguing “my proposal was to support both projects, which is complete.” Twitter user @PaulForget showed his concern by tweeting “support and Provincial govt $$$ commitments are subject to change.”

One of the first questions on the issue of subjectivity was asked by Fleming College Learning Technologist, Alana Callan (@AlanaCallan) who wondered, “What were the criteria that you used to measure your success in the #45proposals document.” Bennett responded “council decisions, staff reports, public response.” After the event, Callan told Arthur that she was disappointed by the mayor’s answer.

However, Callan still sees the Twitter Town Hall as “a good start” in engaging the public in local politics electronically. When asked if she would participate again she replied “yes” but mentioned how the event could have benefited from some visual layer: “it would be nice … to both see the process and be involved in [it].” This visual layer would add a further level of transparency, she thinks. Without one, “you kind of have to suspend disbelief and assume it’s him tweeting.”

This suspension of disbelief was harder for some than it was for others. Twitter user @Mike_George07 questioned “@MayorBennett how do we know this is actually you?” Bennett replied “because I’m actually tweeting?”

Despite all of this, Mayor Bennett was optimistic about how the event turned out and reported to Arthur by email that he “enjoyed the process, watching questions unfold, allowing everyone a chance to address the issue.” Like Callan, Bennett said he hopes the use of social media by local government will continue. He mentions it is a “good way to engage more than just the question.”

Indeed, communities and sub-communities were out in full force – most notably Peterborough cyclists. As early as October 24 @APtboPeddler had been tweeting in anticipation of the event. Jeffrey Macklin (@JacksonCreek) of Jackson Creek Press and Prevail Design+Media was one of many community members tweeting at Mayor Bennett about biking issues.

Macklin also reported being disappointed by the mayor’s “snarky” answer to his question. He tweeted the following: “They say best way to know your city is to ride it. Question: have you ever rode a bike around town?” Bennett retorted, “The best way to know your city is to run for public office. Interested?”

But Macklin also came away from the experience with optimism intact and reported that he would participate in the event again if he had the chance. He cited the fact that “a certain number of people interacted and got responded to who wouldn’t usually have had a chance to do so” as a point in Twitter Town Hall’s favour. Typically, in order to interact with council one would have to request to speak and prepare a speech. With the Twitter Town Hall, one only had to write a question and include “#45proposals” in the tweet to be heard.

Alana Callan points out that this makes the form “an equalizer in terms of participation.” This can be important both with respect to community involvement and educational engagement. During Twitter Town Hall, Callan assisted a sociology class lead by Professor Cindy Gervais at Fleming College in engaging with and examining the discussion. It was a way of “integrating technology in the classroom as a backchannel” for student participation. Callan reported that students participated both in class and on Twitter and were highly engaged with the overall discussion.

Callan pointed out how something like a Twitter-based public discussion is also a great way to develop critical thinking skills: “We say don’t take people at ‘tweet value’ … take a look at their profile before replying.” For this reason she was happy to see some spam tweets left in the discussion stream to exemplify when it would be inappropriate to respond.

As for the future of events like Twitter Town Hall, the community interest is definitely there. Mayor Bennett expressed hope that “perhaps as we move forward with our renovations [of City Council] there may be opportunities to engage our constituents without the need to travel!” Monday’s Twitter Town Hall certainly required no travel from home, the office, or school to participate in. The future looks bright for web-based politics.

About Pat Reddick 84 Articles
Pat was co-editor of Volume 49, along with Matt Rappolt. He's primarily interested in arts coverage, often editorializing on arts issues. He graduated from Trent with a Bachelor's degree in English Lit. Pat hosts or co-hosts several programs at Trent Radio, such as Media Are Plural. You can follow him on Twitter, or watch him eat through his kitchen window. In his spare time Pat reads a lot (q.v. English major), plays video games, and writes fiction. He has a blog or something but I couldn't find out too much about that.