Victoria’s New Mayor Lisa Helps Doing Her Bit for Democracy

Community drop-ins aim to give citizens a sense of belonging, find solutions
By Joan Delaney, Epoch Times
March 25, 2015 12:28 pm Last Updated: March 25, 2015 12:28 pm

VICTORIA—A unique effort by Victoria’s new mayor to meaningfully engage citizens is creating a buzz in British Columbia’s capital city.

Not long after Lisa Helps took office last December, she began holding “Community Drop-Ins” at city hall for two hours every second Friday. Previous mayors had held one-on-one 10-minute meetings with members of the public once a month, but Helps felt more was needed.

Through the drop-ins she hopes to “build community and a sense of belonging,” she says.

“I guess I consider myself a community builder by nature and by trade and you can’t build community one-on-one. And I know from my time working in the community that people, just regular people, have really good ideas and also really good solutions sometimes to other people’s problems,” Helps told the Epoch Times.

“And I knew from experience that convening people together to have a conversation was a good thing, and I thought as mayor, ‘I’ll just try this and see what happens.’ And it’s been absolutely spectacular.”

One of our strategic objectives is to engage and empower the community.
— Mayor Lisa Helps

The room where the drop-ins are held seats up to 30, and it’s usually full. Coffee, tea, and water are provided. As soon as people are seated they introduce themselves and announce their agenda items which Helps writes on a flipchart, and once each item is dealt with she crosses it off and proceeds to the next one.

Helps keeps things moving so that every topic is covered in the two hours, all the while jotting down notes and action items on a clipboard balanced on her lap. People share ideas and ways to get connected such as email addresses, websites etc. on a whiteboard.

“I never know what’s going to happen, I never know who’s going to show up, I never know what the topics are going to be, and it’s always a really, really rich conversation with some concrete actions coming out of it as well,” Helps says.

Bryan Gilbert, whose topic is the proposed $1 billion sewage treatment plant Victoria is currently grappling with, is a regular at the drop-ins.

“I’ve been going since the very first one, and from the very beginning they’ve just been amazing. What a change in the way of going about democracy,” he says.

“This approach that Lisa’s taking is such an amazing way of getting the community together.”

A wide range of issues can come for discussion, and anyone in the room can offer their ideas and observations. Gilbert says he has seen many people leave having benefited from the interaction, with, in some cases, a promise of help from the mayor as well.

“She is very up front that she’s a mayor of a council—she can’t do anything without the council—but she’s willing to take action on behalf of certain initiatives if she feels there’s something that she can do to help.”

Connecting the Dots

Maureen Eykelenboom attended the March 6 meeting. She says she was expecting more of a meet-and-greet effort, and was thrilled to instead encounter a full, well-rounded meeting.

“I thought it was amazing. Mayor Helps ran that meeting most efficiently and she truly helped the community connect the dots,” she says.

“I loved the way that people interacted and supported each other, the way that the issues were handled, and the way that [Helps] ran that full agenda with speed and courtesy.”

Eykelenboom, who lives a three-hour drive away in Courtenay, says she had wanted a personal meeting with the mayor but that didn’t work out, so Helps suggested she come to the drop-in. She says she enjoyed it so much that she would attend regularly if she lived in Victoria.

Helps says there are other things—in fact, “just about everything”—besides the drop-ins that she intends to do differently as mayor, including getting additional public input on the budget through an in-depth online survey and a town hall meeting.

“One of our strategic objectives is to engage and empower the community,” she says.

Helps believes involving the community as much as possible is important for democracy, and she hopes other mayors will follow her example and implement community drop-ins, which she calls “one of best parts of my job.”

“I feel energized and inspired, not only by the topics that people want to talk about, but the way that problems can be solved by drawing on the wisdom of the community and putting it together,” she says.

“We have a community full of highly intelligent, highly passionate, highly educated, highly experienced people, and I think that the shame is that, as elected officials, we don’t draw on that more. And so that sort of for me is what the drop-in is about.”