Twenty-five years ago, there was little or no public consultation and certainly not public engagement as we understand it today.
So what does this sea change mean for the role of Council or even members of the public on Council night when the big decision gets made? I think it is a question we need to consider.
Twenty-five years ago, the political and community lens provided by elected officials and members of the public at a Council meeting was critical Often it was the only time in the decision-making process that members of Council or the public could weigh in. It was “the public process”.
This has changed over the ensuing years.
Today, our administration consults and engages the community long before their report reaches the Council Chamber. Social media allows consultation to happen in “real-time” and we have barely scratched the surface of how information technologies can be used to promote civic engagement.
As we continue to move to more fulsome consultation and engagement processes, what will the role of the infamous “Council Meeting” be in that process?
Of course, the role of Council is larger than simply hearing public delegations at a Council Meeting.
Council must consider whether the decision is aligned with the strategic goals of the organization. If not, perhaps it is simply not a priority at this time. Council must consider whether the decision is consistent with our core mandate. If not, it might still be a good idea but not for us. Maybe there is another way to achieve it in the community through partnerships. Other questions that Council needs to consider are: how will it be funded, can it be afforded, how will we measure success and report on performance? These roles are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago.
Yet, how should Council weigh the input of a member of the public who has not engaged in the process but appears at a “Council Meeting” seeking a specific change to a staff recommendation? How does Council respect the input in that moment without undermining the contributions of others during the entire process? Should the last one in have a stronger voice? I think we would all agree the answer is no but easier said than done.
How does Council even weigh the input of a colleague around the horseshoe who wants to make an amendment to a recommendation that has been hashed out between many actively-engaged stakeholders? How should we demonstrate respect for the process as leaders?
My sense is that we still have much to learn, both at City Hall and in the community, as we work to rebuild trust in local government and authentically engage citizens in the process.