Public meetings on CVRD budget a must
At the April 10 CVRD regular board meeting a schedule for the 2020 budget process was recommended for approval. One thing that is typically in the schedule was missing: the opportunity for the public to attend public information and feedback meetings. During the 2019 budget process, four regional meetings were held.
One director proposed an amendment to add public meeting times back into the schedule, but it was defeated, and the schedule was approved as presented. Discussions revealed that attendance at such meetings were sometimes poor or non-existent with only South Cowichan having shown interest this past year, and valuable staff preparation time was felt to be wasted.
In a subsequent recommendation, which was approved, the staff were directed to prepare a report detailing options for public engagement in the 2020 budget year. As shown on the meeting video, directors thought that exceptions could be made for South Cowichan and any other areas which showed interest. To view the discussion, go to the CVRD public portal site for this meeting and scroll to the one hour and 28 minute mark.
I am concerned that the public’s ability to attend and be heard at public budget meetings has, at this point, officially disappeared. I am also concerned about what options for public engagement will be left, considering the following.
PlaceSpeak, the CVRD’s online avenue for public input, elicited lively debate over aspects of the draft 2019 budget. When providing a summary to the CVRD board at the end of the process, CAO Brian Carruthers directed his words several times to audience members, including some who had participated in the PlaceSpeak debate. He pointed out that the PlaceSpeak feedback had become distressing, and specifically decried the high number of dissenting comments left by some people, and one unnamed individual in particular.
To the best of my knowledge, the Local Government Act requires that the public be consulted as part of the budgetary process, although I believe there is no requirement that public meetings specifically be held. Nevertheless, the elimination of equal opportunity public meetings will mean that residents will have lost their chance to have a live interactive exchange with those holding their purse strings.
If residents feel it is important to be able to gather with other residents and interact with local government leaders over the management of their property tax dollars, or if they are not a taxpayer and wish to have a say in the services provided to all residents, I encourage them to make sure their opinion is heard now by contacting their elected representative, or the CVRD board chair. Contact information is on the CVRD website.
Some things to consider:
• Public meetings are a time-honoured tradition, and despite the recent affinity for communicating online, there is no more effective reminder of the impact of decisions made by staff or politicians than having to witness and respond to the fear, anticipation, acceptance, or outrage expressed by those who will be most affected.
• All geographical areas should have the same rights to express themselves during any consultation process. No one area, even if it appears more proactive at one time, should be given special consideration in a consultation process involving all areas. In the big picture, any area at any time may for many reasons become more involved, and isn’t that what is desired — more public participation?
• If a public meeting gets side-lined by someone who repeatedly expresses the same thought, a live audience can be a facilitator’s best ally in shutting the person down. Online discussions that have the same problem may be more difficult to control without closing the entire discussion.
• The consultation process should accommodate both oral and written styles of communicating.
• The expression of righteous emotions by people is one way that societies achieve productive change. Do not narrow opportunities for that, but rather embrace and extend them.
• Do not take away what people perceive as their rights without a widely publicized call for public input.
• The difference between a poor feedback response and an overwhelming one can be as simple as one contentious issue.
• Staff preparation could be reduced by eliminating a lengthy slide presentation and gearing the meeting to what the specific audience is interested in knowing, as determined at the start of the meeting.