By Chris Schnurr
Across Canada, some municipalities are rethinking how they engage residents to improve decision making, and to make local government more accessible, transparent, and responsive to residents.
Yet in Windsor, if the December budget meeting is any indication, such thinking appears to be unwelcome by some increasingly imperious councilors.
In 2012, the Wellesley Institute proposed a set of recommendations to improve community engagement in Toronto’s budget process based upon best practices of other communities including Calgary, and many could be applied here.
In, A Better Budget for a Better City: Ideas for a healthy budget process in Toronto, Lisa Marie Williams writes Toronto’s, “… all night meetings … [are] a budget process that [falls] short of what is needed for good city building.”
Marathon meetings may give the impression of elected officials working hard and long into the night, but when they become surprised they unknowingly increased patio licensing fees, we clearly have a problem.
Last minute additions and “pork barreling,” as former city councilor Alan Halberstadt described the night, came at the price of resident participation and effective council oversight.
According to Williams, meaningful engagement, “… improves the quality of decisions made, facilitates citizen understanding of issues and government processes, ensures transparency and accountability, fosters respect for the views of others, and increases support, understanding, and ownership of decisions made.”
Facilitate understanding. Foster respect. Increase support. Increase understanding.
Some would argue this is what has been missing in Windsor for the last nine years, and it certainly was absent in the 11-hour, so-called marathon session.
The City of Calgary began a process of engaging residents to better align and reflect their goals and the goals of council. To do this the city sought, “… appropriate and effective methods for participation.”
Is dropping more than $100-million on budget day, which will have significant impacts upon the city’s capital and operational budget for the next 10 years and beyond, appropriate and effective?
Calgary encouraged participants to share their values and priorities via community meetings, online forums, and social media.
Is forcing delegates to wait hours to do so, in 5 minutes or less, meaningful and effective engagement?
In fact, some councilors do not respond to emails, and Mayor Dilkens blocks citizens on social media; deeming their questions, or values as apparently negative.
Calgary encouraged residents to grasp a better understanding of the budget process by utilizing online tools.
Residents here must navigate through dozens of links and hundreds of pages to attempt to grasp even a basic understanding.
It’s almost as if it this was intentional.
This aversion to broad-based community engagement is reflected by Councilor Payne’s letter to the editor of January 8, where he attempts to rationalize his reasons for not investing in community groups or local events.
Payne takes exception to funding requests being made at budget time, which he claims could increase taxes, but fails to grasp that the solution is in his criticism; engage the public before budget time.
But more importantly, if the community had been consulted in a meaningful way, such requests could be either reduced or eliminated altogether, as the values of the community and council would be better aligned.
There is no valid reason to rush approval of a budget days before Christmas, or to do so in the span of 11 hours.
If the objective was to exhaust both councilor and delegate so as to prevent or reduce participation, transparency, and understanding, December’s budget meeting was an overwhelming success.
But in reality, the budget process fell short on several fronts including fostering dialogue and understanding, as well as good city building.
The budget process should be reflective of the community: engaging, inspiring, and inclusive.
That is something I expect our city council to represent.