Yesterday I met with grade five students from St. John’s-Kilmarnock School to discuss municipal government. They had many thoughtful, well articulated questions about local government. It was a pleasure to spend half an hour with them before they headed to the Guelph Civic Museum to learn more about the history of Guelph.
October 14 to 20th is Local Government Week, and in partnership with the Guelph Civic Museum, we will be hosting several grade five classes to learn more about municipal government and Guelph.
I am glad. We need more of it. Understanding is the first step to engagement.
During my time in municipal politics, I have observed one thing that continues to hinder broader engagement which in my opinion is completely unnecessary. It is also the source of too much unnecessary conflict and, ultimately, cynicism in local government.
We simply don’t know enough about how it works – who does what, why or how.
This is not unique to Guelph. There is widespread misunderstanding of the role of municipal government in the 21st century. It is found inside and outside the walls of City Hall. It leads to members of the public expecting the wrong things of their elected officials. It leads to a lack of clarity in the roles of elected officials and city staff.
The place of municipal government in Canada society today is unrecognizable from the days when it was conceived. This is particularly true in urban centres where the systems required to manage so many people living so closely together have become not just complicated but more complex.
Today, more than 80% of Canadians live in urban centres compared to 20% over a century ago. The roaming of cattle and chickens is no longer the pressing concern that it once was for our early settlements.
While the basic building blocks of municipal government have changed very little over the years, as a system it has become more complex which has only served to make it less easily understood.
It feels like we are expected to understand our local government through osmosis. This is simply not reasonable today.
Local governments face demands to do more with less and will need to engage their communities even more effectively to set priorities and to build partnerships to achieve them. Local Government Week is a great start but, strategically, municipal government need to take ownership of this issue rather than hope for the best.