by Michelle Sandsmark
As the Mayor of Smithers for the last four years, Taylor Bachrach has developed a reputation in the community, and across BC, as being an authentic leader committed to putting his community’s well-being first; and in doing so, listening intently to the residents perspectives and ideas.
“Generally, there has been a shift in the way we think of local government,” explained Bachrach, “from local government purely being responsible for water pipes, sewer pipes, paved streets and sidewalks, to local government really being an expression of community and a facilitator for community dialogue.”
"There has been a shift...to local government really being an expression of community and a facilitator for community dialogue."
This shift has also resulted in a change of residents’ expectations of local governments in terms of the breadth of issues that local government tackles. Recognizing this shift, Bachrach and Town Council have made a concerted effort to engage in meaningful discussions with community members to learn what issues need to be prioritized.
In 2012 when Bachrach was first elected as Mayor, he intended to actively engage the public in Council’s decision-making processes. Throughout 2013, the Town hosted a series of public engagement sessions titled “Lets Talk”. These forums were a great success, and provided insight about the residents’ perspective on issues such as business in Smithers, bike lanes, and landscape design. This program earned Smithers the UBCM Community Excellence Award for Best Practices in Civic Engagement in September 2014.
To build on this success, Bachrach and council initiated a community engagement process called “Table Talks” from February to March 2015. This process gave interested residents the opportunity to gather in groups of 6-10 people at a convenient location in the community. From there, the group would inform the Town Office about their formation, and in turn two council members were sent to facilitate the gathering. These sessions were focused around three key questions, which would help to inform council’s priorities. Through these Table Talks, the Town of Smithers was able to conduct 17 Table Talk Sessions with over 130 community members.
With Bachrach’s genuine dedication to his community, the results have been used to help council implement various actions and key priorities. The Town is in the planning phases for the development of an arts and culture center that will become a new home for the Smithers Public Library and other civic uses. There are conversations with the Wet’suwet’en Nation to begin cultivating a Shared History project.
Additionally, the Town of Smithers is working in partnership with the Northern Health Authority on two projects to improve the community’s well-being. Firstly, the Town established a Cycling Friendly Task Force in 2012 which has been working to make Smithers a more cycle friendly community and to encourage the use of active transportation. The Task Force released four key recommendations, including the establishment of new bike racks. Bachrach and council quickly enacted this recommendation, which affectionately earned the mayor his title as “Mayor Bike-rack”.
"I think today more people are following what we are doing as a town, and more people feel they have a voice in the future."
More recently, Northern Health and the Bulkley Valley Social Planning Society and the Town of Smithers started working on the Community Vitality Project. This project focuses on developing a set of indicators specific to the Town of Smithers to help measure various aspects of community well-being. This will help the community track their progress on the issues that matter most to them. “The idea around this set of indicators is to create a common language and a catalyst for conversation,” explained Bachrach. “It is important to know what the trends are in the things we know that matter so we can take action to make sure the trends are heading in the right direction and we can improve the community year after year.”
Over 60 community leaders engaged in the workshop “Community Vitality: How Do We Measure Progress?” on October 8th, 2015 to determine which indicators are the most important to measure to help gauge how their decisions are impacting residents.
Bachrach’s deep sense of commitment to his community is indisputable. Community engagement is a key principle in the Mayor’s work, and as Town Council moves forward to achieve their vision, they continue to empower community members to make sure their voices are heard. “I am proud of the way council and I have worked over the past four years to really engage the community in the conversation about local government, and to use new ways of communicating to become more accessible,” Bachrach stated.
Bachrach has found that using a variety of methods, such as holding Table Talks meetings and the Lets Talk forums, as well as using different social media platforms has helped to reach a wide range of citizens, and not just the usual suspects. “I think today more people are following what we are doing as a town, and more people feel they have a voice in the future.”
To learn about community engagement processes in the North visit the Citizen Series archive.