Say you have a great idea for Peterborough. It’s a very reasonable project or policy that would vastly improve the quality of life for residents of the city. It’s something that would fall under the purview of the municipal government, (e.g. improving sidewalk accessibility). How would you go about getting it done?
There is an immediacy to municipal government that opens it to citizen input in ways that the provincial or federal government cannot accommodate. From their collection of your garbage to the fact that City Council meetings are located downtown and are open to the public, the operations of City Hall are available for citizens to interact with.
Moreover, the key players in City Hall, like councillors, are community members that are often engaged in the city in other ways. Their presence and involvement in the community gives the public opportunity to engage with them outside official capacities and approach them outside of their office.
Cheryl Lyon, local community mobilizer, put it in an interview with Arthur, “if you’re in a city the size of Peterborough or smaller, you actually know the people who are involved there; you see them involved in other places in the city. There’s a personal face there.”
City councillors are available for meetings with interested citizens. This can be an effective way of having your project or interests noted, and even just to have your questions answered. Gaining support from individual councillors can be the key to having a favourable reception at a City Council meeting where it will be decided if the project should be a priority of the City.
Otherwise, the City Clerk can ensure that messages are relayed to the council as a whole and information is distributed. The Clerk’s office is also responsible for arranging delegations at Council meetings. A citizen can register as a delegation, which gives them the opportunity to address council for seven minutes and then field questions.
Other than City Council, citizens can get engaged with City Hall through Advisory committees that are designated for certain issues (e.g. public library, accessibility, housing).
John Kennedy, City Clerk, in an interview with Arthur said, “Advisory committees are committees that are a bit closer to the community. I’d suggest because there is the opportunity to attend them, citizens also have the opportunity to apply to be on them.” Advisory committees advise on project concepts and other matters related to their purview.
To combat a perception that municipal government is inaccessible to citizens, there are a number of alternative systems being advocated for in the city. Lyon has spoken to City Council in support for Participatory Budgeting (PB), a strategy that is becoming popular in small to mid-size cities that sees city money allocated to a fund spent on projects citizens choose.
The goal with PB is to engage citizens with municipal governance beyond consultations and involved in revenue and expenditures within a limited scope.
Of course, everything in government takes time and is subject to democratic processes. Just because one citizen thinks it’s a good idea does not mean others will. This should not deter participation, but should encourage it instead.
Lyon said, “The more we understand it and the better we understand it, the more easily we can use it: to have our issues heard, and our influence. That can have a great effect on democracy, beyond just getting what you want.”