Dooley, Kozak, and Macdonald Answer Three Questions About Public Participation in City Council Business
This week I asked the mayor and two councillors three questions about public participation in the Nelson City Council’s budget meetings, and their answers are interesting because they go beyond the budget process and talk about participation in general.
At a recent presentation to council by its communications consultant, public budget meetings were named as one example of how Council interacts with the public. But actually almost no one attends those meetings despite the fact that they are the crucial point at which Council makes decisions about services and taxes.
(Click here for a schedule of budget meetings in February and March.)
Question 1: WHY DON’T PEOPLE COME TO THE BUDGET MEETINGS?
Councillor Donna Macdonald
“There is a disconnect. People see taxes as giving their money away, whereas in my view we are investing in our community, we are purchasing services with our taxes.
“I think for the average person going to a meeting and delving into a 3-million dollar budget and trying to understand it is overwhelming at best and dry at worst.
“It’s the challenge of how we make the process and the outcome relevant to people and somehow convey to them the importance of it.”
Mayor John Dooley
“The people I talk to for the most part, you can call them the silent majority if you wish, they say, we elected you, go in there and address the core services, and in three years if we don’t like it we’ll get rid of you.”
Councillor Deb Kozak
“They don’t know if they will have much influence. They know council will listen but they wonder if their opinion about anything will even make a difference. Also a lot of people think, I‘ve elected you to this position, and we expect you to be a good job and expect you to be prudent. I think a lot of times people trust us that way.
“People find the budget boring. It needs to be brought alive: this is what this money does in your community and this is how it makes a difference.”
Question 2: HOW COULD COUNCIL MAKE THE PROCESS MORE ACCESSIBLE OR ENGAGING?
“We should break it down into more understandable pieces, so people can see how the budget influences the issues that people really care about.
“For many years we have had the open house at city hall and maybe 4 or 5 people will show up and we held it at the library last year and we had a much better turnout. Maybe just putting it in a more convenient location helps.
“We could be do it totally differently. There are models out there for participatory budget-making, but that requires a major investment by citizens, it is not just a matter of coming in and saying, well you are spending too much on snow-ploughing. To really address budget concerns we need informed opinions and not just emotional reactions. The challenge would be to get a real cross-section of opinion and not just opinion from a part of the community.”
“We had four or five years of a very active group around town that talked about public participation and we bent over backwards to be inclusive to actually respond to that, to the point where we were going out and having meetings in churches and the Legion and hotels, and it cost us to do that. But the same thing happened there. Even many of the people that wanted the participation didn’t show up.
“Some people like to talk about participatory and open government and democracy, but when you hand the ball back to them and say OK here is your chance, they say well hang on a second, that’s not what I meant.”
“I have heard of a process called a community deliberation day. Maybe council comes forward and says here are some of the directions we see our community could go and we would like feedback from the general public. When you ask people a question it has to be an informed question. Sometimes it is OK to throw open the doors and say whatever you want to say, but sometimes, people need to be asked something more specific. Somehow we need to involve people in a process where they know what the outcome is that they would have some say in it.
“One of the most successful community engagement processes was the Sustainability Plan, because it was targeted and people brought back what they knew from their neighbourhoods and their circles of co-workers and friends. We had excellent facilitation and there was some attempt to go out to people rather than asking them to come in, and a targeted effort to make sure we got all sectors of the community.”
Question 3: DO YOU THINK IT IS HARDER NOW THAN TEN YEARS AGO TO GET PEOPLE’S ATTENTION OR PARTICIPATION IN CITY COUNCIL BUSINESS?
“I do, actually, and part of it is attributable to changes in media landscape locally. Even people who are interested in local politics are much less informed on what is going on—there is less engagement. There is a general shrug out there: well, they are going to do what they are going to do and it doesn’t really matter what I say, which is really sad.”
“No, I don’t think so. In fact I think people count on the media a lot to keep them up to speed. There is a silent majority out there. They are keeping an eye on things quietly. I bump into people on a regular basis on the street and they will say something to me about the meters or the dogs or the cost of snow ploughing, and you would be surprised, there is a participation piece there. You listen to it because they are not people who are always jumping up and down yelling and screaming.”
“Sometimes yes, but it depends on what you are asking people to do and how it is facilitated, like the success of the Sustainability Plan process.”