Citizen Input and Council Decisions

By Ted Mitchell
Published September 19, 2008

There is a special meeting of the Economic Development and Planning Committee on Monday, September 22 at 6:00 PM, Albion Room, 2nd Floor, Hamilton Convention Centre. The topic is citizen input (PDF link).

If this is your first notice about the meeting, sorry, you won't be able to say anything. The deadline for registering to speak at the meeting is now over. I think that sort of says it all about the City of Hamilton.

The city of Hamilton's current practice of only allowing public input at a late stage in project development is fraught with problems.

First and most obviously, councillors are not given enough time to process input from the public, and in most cases have already decided how they will vote based on information provided by City staff.

The disingenuous part of the process allows for official paperwork to record that public participation occurred, but disallows any substantive input to either project development or influence over which options are chosen.

Having personally attended several of the City's information sessions, I have come to the conclusion that my input is not heard or addressed and it is a waste of my and every other member of the public's time even to show up. In fact, it feels like we the public are being used as pawns to be able to mark a check box "public input obtained".

If Hamilton wants to be a progressive, competitive city, it needs to tap into the resources of its citizens. Council should recognize that city staff offer limited creativity in formulating solutions. Also, consultants suffer from the same problem, often with additional bias thrown in, as well as a hefty bill for the taxpayer to pick up.

The process of changing this sorry situation is as simple as it is contentious. Direct participation: give Hamilton citizens actual input into developing solutions to problem statements at the earliest stages.

There are several ways to obtain this expertise, from email lists to targeted neighbourhood education campaigns to ear-to-the ground awareness of the politically astute and expert citizens in one's constituency.

Then, once options are developed, give larger groups of affected citizens actual input into choosing the preferred options. Solutions made with citizen development and preferences, in addition to input from staff and hired consultants, enhance council's ability to make intelligent decisions with long term resonance.

Will this lead to delays in implementing solutions? Yes, it means the development process will take more time.

Will this lead to more citizen participation, less voter apathy, better solutions, less citizen activist opposition, and long run reduced costs? Absolutely.

The choice is up to council. Defend the present broken system, which has advantages for political favours and defending the status quo, or allow real citizen input to enhance our City.

That choice will determine whether Hamilton will continue to be left behind by our competitors, or whether we can grow into a thriving, positive City.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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