Weds Jan 3: How Can Council Support & Encourage Community Engagement?
Plus: Upcoming Grey Gallery exhibitions; CWHC hours change for winter
In a new letter to the editor, Jim Hutton praises Owen Sound for its “Our City” website, which invites residents to get involved by sharing their feedback, ideas, and questions on city projects.
There is more work to do though, he says, particularly when it comes to providing a more inviting, warm, and friendly environment for residents at council meetings.
Hutton raises valid questions. Have you tried to share a question, concern, or feedback with an elected representative recently?
You can look up councilors’ phone numbers on the City’s website, or send a webform that will be delivered to a councilor’s email. But who should you contact?
Owen Sound doesn’t have a ward system; everyone on Council represents everyone in the municipality. As residents and constituents in a fully at-large council system, we have no designated voice at the council table.
Your option then is to email firstname.lastname@example.org, which delivers to all councilors.
However, when I used this method recently to ask our elected representatives how they each plan to address the issues raised in Hutton’s service delivery research report, the Mayor responded on behalf of Council.
How could council have formed a shared opinion on this, I asked, when it had never been discussed in open session?
The Mayor responded, “No meeting. Not discussed. The Mayor is spokesperson by Municipal Act or By-law or both.”
I’m not sure how many sitting councilors share this belief that when residents reach out to share concerns and ask questions, they aren’t to respond or engage because the Mayor will handle it. But if that were the case, we would only need one municipal representative – not nine.
Once council votes on an issue, by all means, the Mayor is their spokesperson and all are expected to abide by the decision they’ve collectively made.
Up until that point, we have elected a group of diverse individuals to council because we expect a variety of experiences, perspectives – and points of contact – as representation when issues and questions arise.
A municipal council is not a “team,” a monolith, or an extension of city staff. We elect a council as our representatives in making important decisions about municipal financing and services.
So why has two-way communication with councilors become so difficult?
The Municipal Act, 2001, s. 217 (1) (4) provides that “other than the head of council, members shall be elected by general vote or wards or by any combination of general vote and wards.” Maybe it’s time we look at a combination of wards and at-large members, so at least some elected officials are clear on who they are meant to represent.
In the meantime, the system of booking an appearance in front of council to ask a single question devoid of context in open session has become onerous and, as Hutton witnessed and wrote about in his letter, rather unfriendly and unwelcoming.
We’ve asked elected representatives via that email@example.com address again to comment on these suggested improvements to public engagement, this time as individuals, and will share any responses received later this week.
In the meantime, full subscribers can carry on to see what’s happening in local news.