Public Participation

As many of our readers know, Wolfville has another watchdog with a bone, David Daniels. He constantly and relentlessly reminds Council of their mandate to consult residents. He has this commentary to contribute leading up to the very important budget meeting scheduled for Tuesday May 26th.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN WOLFVILLE OR THE LACK THEREOF

The Town government does not seem to take seriously the imperatives set out in the recently adopted Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS): that Wolfville is to be “guided by citizen engagement through ongoing public consultation” and to “empower people and foster participation.” pp. 5 and  81.

Here are four examples.

The all-important budget meeting at which citizens finally can ask questions and comment on the Town budget is scheduled for May 26th, next Tuesday, at 7:00 p.m.  It would be helpful, of course, if the citizens actually were able to see the budget before they are expected to ask questions about it.  The Councilors have been examining early drafts of the budget for about two months.  Town residents should be allowed more than five days to carefully the budget, think about it, and have time to discuss it with their neighbours before the meeting.  I hope there will be a second meeting scheduled.

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I attended the last Council retreat held on April 27th.   At that meeting, the date of the next (and final) retreat was set for May 22nd.   At the time of this writing, Thursday morning, this meeting of Council, open to the public, has yet to be posted on the Town’s website calendar.  At the Council meeting held Tuesday, May 19th, I asked why the retreat date had not yet been posted.  There was some excuse given about the location not yet having been decided upon and I was told that it would soon be placed on the calendar.  Why wasn’t the May 22nd meeting posted right after the April 27th meeting, when the date was set, with the notation: “location to be determined”?

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Go to the Town website, click on “Town Hall” and then on the left hand side click on “Bylaws”.  This is what you will find.

The Town of Wolfville Bylaws are currently under review to ensure they are accurate and up-to-date. Upon completion of this review, the Bylaws will be posted on this site to be accessed by the public. If you have questions regarding any of the Town’s Bylaws, please contact Rachel Turner, Town Clerk at rturner@town.wolfville.ns.ca (subject line Town of Wolfville Bylaws).

It’s been saying this for a long time; probably well over  a year.  I’ve periodically asked about this at Council meetings, commenting that it is very important for residents to have easy access to the very bylaws by which the town is governed.  And each time I’ve asked, I get the same explanation (excuse) from staff:  “The town needs to review the bylaws to make sure they are accurate; it’s a big job; if you ask at the Town hall they will provide you with a copy and even send you a copy.”  On Tuesday night when I asked again, (the first time before the new Council), I got from staff the same story, with some variation.  The staff acknowledges the task is important, but there are other more urgent matters.

Typically, when I asked the question in the past,  the Mayor and Councilors have sat mute after the staff gives its explanation for the delay.  Councilor Irving this time spoke up and asked that the Council be provided with a workplan from staff regarding the completion of this task.

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At the April Council meeting I asked whether the Town had a policy concerning public participation at its Council meetings.  I asked the question again at the May 19th Council meeting.

I was told that Mr. Brideau, the Town’s Chief Administrative Officer, and the Town solicitor were working on a proposal to present to Council.  I can understand why Mr. Dewar would be involved in devising such a policy, providing information about the legal parameters.  But why Mr. Brideau?  Mr. Brideau’s responsibilities are set out at Section 31 of the Municipal Government Act.  I don’t quite see an exact fit between his statutory administrative responsibilities and powers and coming up with a policy for public participation.  Maybe his experience attending Council meetings might be helpful.  But why not ask a local citizen or two to participate.  (There is some irony in the fact that apparently the decision to formulate this policy of public participation and assign the task to Mr. Brideau and Mr. Dewar was made at an unnoticed [and therefore “not public”] Council retreat meeting.)

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Is there a conspiracy afoot to limit public participation and delay or thwart the goals set out in the MPS?  I suspect not.  Fostering public participation just isn’t high on the Town government’s list of priorities.  Democracy is, after all, messy and time-consuming.  Those who sit at the Council table and have the power seemingly lose sight of what it’s like to be a mere resident, whose life’s often are directly effected by the decisions of Council and who pay the taxes.

David A. Daniels
May 21, 2009

Yes, democracy is messy and time-consuming. Generally staff and sometimes Councils don’t like that.

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3 responses to “Public Participation

  1. A link to this discussion forum appeared on my weekly Google Alert on “Public Participation.” I am in Halifax, and volunteer as a director on the board of the International Association for Public Participation (I’ve included a link to the website for anyone who’s interested in learning more). I am glad that this debate is happening in Wolfville, and I wish it was happening in many other places in Nova Scotia as well. As citizens it is both a right and a responsibility to actively participate in our democracy. It is a right and a responsibility that many feel we only need to (or get the opportunity to) exercise during elections. That’s a misdirected view, and citizens need to send that message to their elected officials loudly and clearly. Citizen participation enhances public decisions and leads to better, mmore sustainable decisions in the long run. With the election of Barack Obama and through his policy of engagement, I believe there is a sea-change coming in democracies the world-over regarding public participation. There are many organizations, like IAP2, who promote this work and from whom our governments can learn. Its up to us, as citizens, to lead them there if they are unwilling to go on their own. Best of luck!

  2. George Townsend

    Throughout the entire budget process, by my observation, not a single question was permitted from the public. Questions were encouraged, at least seemingly, but no opportunity was allowed to ask them. Apart from one councillor, questions via e-mail were not answered. It’s one thing to encourage public participation but quite another to actually allow it to happen. In Wolfville they may talk the talk but they never walk the walk when it comes to public questioning.

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