Fran Haughian was staffing the Peace River Regional District booth at a trade fair two years ago when she had what would become a familiar exchange.
"I asked (someone) 'where in the regional district do you live' and they’d say 'oh I don't live in the regional district,'" said Haughian, the district's manager of communications. "So I asked 'oh where do you live?' and they said 'Fort St. John.’”
“I said 'oh well that's in the regional district.' Then they said 'no it's not I live in Fort St. John.'"
A new audit of the regional district’s communications department found that while the PRRD is improving how it communicates with residents, many are like that trade fair attendee: they just don’t know what the regional district is.
"It's a general theme," said Haughian. “That's where we're going to have to work on: explaining what (we do) in layman's terms so people understand it better.”
Haughian will present an updated version of the PRRD's communications strategy at a board meeting later this month. Prior to that, the board hired a consultant to survey residents and staff on how well the regional district communicates about its services and policies.
One survey who’s lived in the region for five years voiced a common sentiment: “I was unaware of what [the] PRRD even was until I got involved with some local organizations.”
One of Haughian's focuses will be explaining the regional district as simply as possible.
So what is it?
The PRRD is one of 27 B.C. regional districts, and covers all land east of the Rocky Mountains up to the border with the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality. The Peace River Liard Regional District covered the entire northeast before the two were formally split in 1987.
Regional districts were created to provide local government in unincorporated areas while coordinating regional services with municipalities. The PRRD board, which meets twice-monthly, includes eight municipal representatives, most of them mayors, as well as four directors from the rural electoral areas. Those directors make decisions on everything from noxious weed control to fire protection, water and sewer, parks, building inspection and regional garbage and recycling services.
The district’s profile did get a boost this summer, when it was charged with coordinating emergency response to a series of wildfires and floods. One survey respondent said they had never heard of the regional district until it was issuing evacuation alerts during the fires this spring.
The lack of understanding has larger implications for local democracy. During the 2014 municipal elections, Peace Region towns had among the lowest voter turnouts in B.C., with Fort St. John finishing dead last. Only two of four electoral area seats were contested, with the other two representatives elected by acclamation.
Regional district Chair Don McPherson, who is also mayor of Tumbler Ridge, said people in his town are beginning to understand what the regional district does.
“I don't know what people think happens to garbage when it leaves our town—(maybe) that it disappears,” he said, referring to one of the regional district’s biggest services. “There's lots of things they don't understand, but it's slowly getting there.”