The changes that bring about more meaningful citizen engagement and a better democratic system aren’t always dramatic. They don’t always require revolution, or even a change in leadership. Small, simple fixes can have dramatic effects when it comes to bringing citizens into the decision-making process and making a more representative, responsive government.
In December, Peterborough City Council undertook some of those small changes—but it remains to be seen what kind of effect they will actually have, or whether they’re too small to matter at all.
The first was a change to the meeting schedule. City Council operates on a three-week schedule. Up until now, the first two weeks have been taken up by Committee meetings, followed by a proper City Council meeting on week three, where issues come to a final vote. Agendas and relevant staff reports for each meeting have been released on the Friday before the Monday meeting.
Now, both committees will meet one week one, and City Council will wait until week three for their meeting.
Ian Attridge is a member of Reimagine Peterborough, a local group who have been advocating for more transparency and citizen engagement in City Hall decisions. He’s cautiously optimistic about the change, which will give citizens an extra week to meet with Councillors and staff and express their concerns, and to prepare ‘delegations’ (presentations) for the Council meeting.
But even under the new system, information still won’t be released until Thursday before the Monday meeting. It’s an extra day, but Attridge says it “isn’t going to make any difference.” He notes that several Councillors work on weekends. “Is this what they really want? Soon after they’ve just started to read the report, for the public to call them and try and argue it?”
Other changes are coming too. Following an Ontario government mandate, the City is establishing a Planning Advisory Council, including a Councillor and four citizens, who will give input on planning decisions. However, former mayor Sylvia Sutherland, in an opinion piece in Peterborough This Week, wrote critically about this committee—which will only meet four times a year, only has the “power to advise,” and can’t engage in public consultation—calling it “the bare minimum” to satisfy Ontario government requirements.
Finally, the City is hiring a new communications director, to co-ordinate the sometimes scattershot way the government talks to its people. (This comes along with a revamping of the City’s outdated and confusing website.) Attridge says he’s “optimistic” that this will result in more public consultations and a better-organized system for people to get in touch with city staff, “but we’ll wait and see.”
These changes are small, and often quite technical, but perhaps they suggest a way forward, with a local government that is at least motioning towards improving its relationship with its people. However, it’s perhaps telling that all of these changes resulted from city staff reports, with no formal public consultations—meaning that, in deciding how to get citizens more engaged, our local government didn’t actually engage with any citizens.
This article is part of our series “The Four Themes,” exploring four key areas of focus that Electric City Magazine will be following throughout 2018.
Photo by B. Mroz.