Skip to content

LETTER: Former mayor weighs in on council composition review process

'City hall missed an opportunity to involve and collaborate with the community in a democratic conversation,' says Karen Farbridge

GuelphToday received the following letter from former Guelph mayor Karen Farbridge regarding the process used prior to recommending changes to the composition and full/part-time status of Guelph City Council.

Who should decide whether a community uses ranked ballots to elect municipal politicians? Should it be the Ford government? They just passed legislation prohibiting municipal governments from using ranked ballots. Or should it be, for instance, Kingston City Council acting on the results of a referendum?

Likewise, when you consider a significant change to the size and composition of a municipal council, who should decide? Should it be consultants hired by the municipal administration? Should it be the municipal administration when councils oversee the integrity of their role on behalf of voters? Or should it be a citizen’s committee who considers the perspectives of the administration, council, and voters and makes a recommendation to council?

Guelph City Council will vote next week on a staff recommendation to reduce the number of city councillors to eight, to reduce the number of city councillors elected per ward to one and to change the employment status of city councillors to full time.

The staff report recommending these changes highlights how far city hall has strayed from the principles of authentic community engagement.

Most of the activities documented in the staff report focus on how city hall has informed the public. Based on the statistics, they did a good job.

However, while the first step in community engagement is to inform the public, it is not really community engagement because it only involves a one-way flow of information.

The first level of community engagement is to consult which means to obtain public feedback on the information shared and the alternatives being considered. City hall accomplished this largely through an online survey. In this case, the promise being made by city hall to the public is to keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.

The consultants acknowledge that their recommendation to reduce the number of city councillors does not reflect the majority view of those who responded to the survey. What is their feedback on how public input influenced the decision? I can only conclude it was dismissed especially given the following quote in the consultant’s report: “It is understandable that residents are more comfortable with a system that has been in place for almost thirty years.”

City hall missed an opportunity to involve and collaborate with the community in a democratic conversation. Guelph has a long history of community engagement at this level which promises to work together to formulate solutions and incorporate the public’s advice and recommendations into the decision to the maximum extent possible.

The final level of community engagement is to empower the public and place the final decision-making in their hands. In this case, this would be accomplished with a referendum.

What I find sad is that staff’s report to council has a link to the City Hall’s Community Engagement Framework. It is where I gathered the content for this article.

Change is not bad, but you must earn it. This community has shown time and time again its willingness to embrace change when they have been well engaged in the decision.

Respect for democracy is unravelling around us. We see it in small and big ways – the province curtailing municipal democracy, the 2011 robocall scandal where non-Conservative voters were directed to the wrong federal polling stations, mail boxes disappearing in U.S. communities and the polarizing impact of social media. We need more opportunities to flex our democratic muscle, not less.

Karen Farbridge