I approach the speaker’s podium. A hush spreads over the hall. “Please state your name and your address.” I comply. “Thank you. You have seven minutes; you will be given a warning when you have one minute left.” I am about to take part in a ritual that is at once sacred and meaningless: I am about to make a citizen delegation—a presentation—to Peterborough’s City Council.
Why sacred? Civic engagement is one of the pillars of municipal democracy. A moment of silence is observed before these meetings. Flags are on display. The National Anthem is sung. These ceremonies send a message: “What we do here matters. Respect us and respect our rules. This is sacred space.”
Why meaningless? These delegations frequently happen after council members have decided how they are going to vote. Delegations from the public are often heard directly before a final discussion and the vote in council. The councillors are merely going through the motions to satisfy a procedural requirement of local and provincial law. The decision in question likely has already been made.
“Thank you for your presentation. Any questions for our presenter?” (a brief pause as the chairperson’s eye sweeps the council) “Seeing none, I thank you.” I shuffle back to my seat, chuffed to have spoken up, but angry. I know none of this matters. At all.
Why is civic engagement in such a dismal state in Peterborough?
How can all of us, the City and its citizens, move beyond the current tone of mistrust and divisive partisanship? How can we make these rituals come alive again? How can we make civic engagement matter?
We have a representative democracy; our councillors make decisions on our behalf. While they listen to us, in the end, they decide, not the citizens. If we don’t like their decisions, every fourth year we can elect different councillors. Direct democracy, as practiced in ancient Athens, had citizens making all the decisions. Given the pace of modern life, most of us do not have the time, interest, or ability to study all the issues. We need to embrace the best of representative democracy, then open the windows and let the fresh air and sunshine in. We need open democracy. Here are some practical, low-cost steps City Council could take to really improve the way the City engages with its citizens.
Release key reports issues 10 days prior to the meeting at which delegations are to be heard and a vote held.
Frequently these reports are released only four days before an issue is voted upon, not enough time for citizens to prepare for effective delegations.
Invite citizens into the decision-making process much earlier by welcoming delegations or convening discussions at the outset of deliberations, instead of right before the final vote.
In the campaigns over issues such as the Casino, the Parkway, and PDI, many talented volunteers with substantial experience spoke up. Why not let City Council take advantage of this free expertise?
Redesign the City’s website and enhance its social media posts so that the public knows when decisions are being made and what the opportunities are for citizen input.
Right now, from a civic engagement perspective, the City’s website is a labyrinth of daunting complexity. The site should be thoroughly searchable via keywords, not just report numbers.
Allow real, two-way conversations between citizens and council members.
Delegations are one-way. A citizen can present, councillors can then ask questions, but there’s no dialogue. These conversations need to be between large numbers of citizens and all councillors, not one citizen at a time, standing like a condemned prisoner before a firing squad. Trained city staff or citizen groups like Reimagine Peterborough could facilitate these large conversations. A broader use of citizen advisors, as described in the Planning Act’s newly mandated role for citizens on committees, could improve civic engagement.
Augment the content of staff reports to include the concerns of a broader range of citizens.
Currently all staff reports address financial implications. How about including standard sections on implications for environmental and community resilience?
Set up a way for citizens with a specific interest or area of concern to register with City Hall.
That way, they could receive all notices and reports related to their area of concern by email.
Better civic engagement would make for better decisions and ultimately more effective governance. The Parkway Extension is now stalled because civic engagement was seen as a nuisance. Defiant citizens responded accordingly and petitioned the government to intervene. Now that project is in limbo, perhaps never to be implemented; a lack of positive civic engagement has costs.
The City has learned from this mistake; the public consultations held prior to the PDI vote were far more robust. City staff and PDI executives were on hand to answer questions. Consultants were hired to survey citizens. While these PDI consultation sessions were also, like the Parkway consultations, largely sales promotions, nonetheless attempts were made to at least acknowledge the importance of civic engagement.
Peterborough deserves better civic engagement. Right now, citizens and councillors talk past each other, not questioning, not listening, and not understanding the other side. We need to have real conversations, not staged confrontations. We need to tell our councillors we want more open civic engagement. Enhanced civic engagement must become an issue in the 2018 election.
Photo by B Mroz.