After a promising start and some hiccups, the Ward 2 Participatory Budget organizers are planning for process improvements and a rising turnout in the future.
By Saira Peesker
Published September 06, 2013
Ward 2's Participatory Budget process, which saw residents weigh in on ways to spend some of their tax dollars, will become an annual event, says Councillor Jason Farr. But after hiccups that included last-minute poll location changes and late distribution of ballots, improvements to the process will come too, say both the councillor and the organizer behind the project, Norman Kearney.
Ward 2 Participatory Budget poster at Corktown Park (RTH file photo)
The August 24 and 25 vote came after months of preparatory meetings that identified more than 50 potential uses for $1 million of ward-specific money. A panel of elected neighbourhood representatives narrowed suggestions to a shortlist known as "the compromise" [PDF], which was highlighted separately on the ballot alongside the full list of initiatives.
With just over half of the 1,024 votes cast, the compromise won the day and will result in new gardens, benches and a host of other community projects.
Kearney said that the turnout was expected for the first try, and that the numbers are actually quite favourable when compared to the first participatory vote in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where this style of direct democracy took off.
"I am satisfied by how the vote went, but the vote was simply one moment in a process," he said in an email. "The voting days saw a lot of firsts for Hamilton, if not for all of Canada. The first 14-year-old to vote and the first non-citizen residents to vote on a government-approved process to determine fiscal policy. The first deployment of voting vans to bring the vote to the voters. Those are achievements in their own rights!"
But there were a few shortfalls as well as achievements. At the start of the first day of voting, Durand residents arrived at Central Presbyterian Church - the location advertised in a flyer delivered to nearby homes - to find no polling station and no signs explaining the lack of one.
While some went home, others - including myself - headed to Queen Victoria School, another previously advertised location, but another false alarm.
A similar situation occurred when people tried to vote at Lister Block.
"Queen Victoria ended up being too expensive (it would have consumed most of our rentals budget). The Ward 2 office had suggested the Lister, but when they heard back from City staff we agreed there were heritage and fire code concerns. And we were working with the Church to provide voting service without interrupting their Sunday worship, but our plans fell through.
"We found alternate locations immediately and advertised them through posters, Twitter, and Facebook on the Wednesday before the vote. The real problem was the delay in getting posters up at the old locations on Saturday morning."
On the grander scale, Kearney said his vision for improvement would see:
Residents get ballots at least two weeks before the vote so they can research the projects;
An earlier start to the process in the calendar year so the vote doesn't happen in the summer; and
Community assembly meetings on various nights of the week, instead of all Wednesdays like this year, so people with conflicting schedules could participate.
Farr says his office is consulting with the community before deciding exactly what next year's process will look like.
"Other things I expect we will look at [include] the operational expenses/budget, time-lines, voting day(s) and polling/ballot content (and) voter turn-out," he wrote in an email.
In terms of getting the projects started, Farr said his staff is working with the appropriate departments to confirm the projected budgets for each item. "We will get there."
Ward 2 resident Mike Borrelli said Thursday that he's keen to see how the process evolves, and was impressed Farr was willing to take such a bold step ahead of others in the city.
"I was very impressed with the outcome especially since I thought there would be more growing pains in the first year," said Borrelli, treasurer of the Beasley Neighbourhood Association.
"I think the turnout of over 1,000 people is proof that there is an underlying interest among Hamilton's citizens in increased civic consultation and engagement."
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