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Civic Engagement 101 in City of Kawartha Lakes

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It’s fair to say that City Hall  affects us more directly than Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill. The water we drink, our roads and sidewalks, our parks and arenas, the bylaws that regulate our relations with neighbours, delivery of social services — all municipal matters. Altogether, according to City CAO Ron Taylor, there are over 200 municipal programs and services, delivered by over a 1,000 municipal employees.

Our elected mayor and eight councillors represent our interests. Their mission, Taylor reminded them at a February 13 meeting, is to provide “responsible, efficient and effective services.” But their powers go beyond that: Council policy and budget decisions set priorities and shape our future.

That’s a lot of power, but now let’s consider a second point: At no other level of government are there as many opportunities for you to be actively engaged, have your voice heard, and help shape your community’s future.

So, that said, a guide to those opportunities, listed from those that make the most modest demands, to those that require considerable commitment. Consider it the Advocate’s guide to advocating for your municipal interests.

Monitor

Keeping tabs on what’s going on is a good starting-point. The calendar on the City’s website lists all council and committee meetings (nine in March, three of them council). Agendas are posted a week before each meeting on the same page.

In key areas, such as how your tax dollars are spent, you have access to the same information councillors have. (The proposed 2019 budget was available online as far back as November 30, and budget questions from mayor and councillors were posted along with responses from staff. If you want to know how the sausage is made, you can find it clearly laid out).

Almost all meetings are open to the public so if there are issues or agenda items of particular interest you can take a seat in council chambers on Francis Street as they’re being addressed.

Some meetings are worth attending just for insight into municipal machinery. At the February 13 Operating Budget information session, in a set of easy-to-follow PowerPoints, the directors of each of the  nine city departments outlined for the new council their department’s staffing and responsibilities, the 2018 accomplishments, and what they hoped to achieve in 2019 with the money they were requesting.

(Who knew that the City’s legal division arranged for our first ever Cyber Risk Insurance policy to protect us from fallout from the kinds of hacks experienced by Wasaga Beach and Midland? That Public Works’ solar bus shelters created $8,000 in hydro savings or that their mattress diversion pilot project kept 1,100 mattresses out of the landfill in its first 4.5 months? Or that of the Fire Service’s 370 firefighters, 350 are volunteers?)

If you can’t attend, there are a few options: some council meetings are televised live by Cogeco, minutes of meetings are posted on the calendar page, and, of course you can read highlights and analysis in local media. (In the gallery overlooking council proceedings are plug-ins and seating for the four media reps who regularly attend).  

Call/ Write

Your ward councillor and the mayor are only an email or phone call away. If you have questions that need answering or concerns to share let them know. You may be surprised by how quickly they respond. If your councillor can’t help you, he or she may be able to direct you to City staff who can.

Make a Deputation at a Meeting

At a number of council meetings individuals and groups can make their voices heard, literally. Instructions on the process to follow if you want to make a “deputation” or presentation are on the City website. The web-page includes guidelines (requests to speak must be received a time-limit of five minutes and delegations are limited to two speakers, as examples) and a handy set of tips (adjust the microphone, introduce yourself, and address council through the mayor among those).

To really encourage open, consultative government, the mayor has introduced a new kind of meeting: a monthly “Committee of the Whole.” These meetings  are attended by council, city staff, and members of the public, and include deputations, presentations and discussion of matters coming to council. Recommendations can come out of the meeting, but no council decisions are made during the meetings themselves.

The first two Committee of the Whole sessions included a presentation from two ardent environmentalists on how climate change is impacting Kawartha Lakes and another from the Kawartha Lakes Sports and Recreation Council. At the March 19 meeting City staff and consultants will be presenting the Kawartha Lakes Healthy Environment Plan  and the Kawartha Lakes Arts Council will make a deputation.

At  the first meeting the issue of sale of shoreline at Pleasant Point was on the agenda. Over a dozen residents presented their viewpoints. Some deputants were in favour, most opposed, but the two sides managed to disagree without being disagreeable and councillors were able to make constructive  suggestions and suggest ways city staff might help them come to an accommodation.

Participate in Public Consultations

There will be a public consultation sessions on a downtown parking strategy March 5 from 5 pm to 7 pm at the Lindsay Rec Complex (more details in this Advocate article) and on the City’s 10-year housing and homelessness plan on March 13 at the Ops Community Centre (details here). Two examples of opportunities to keep informed and weigh in on issues.

A newly-created, rotating position in council is deputy mayor and one of the responsibilities of the City’s first deputy mayor, Councillor Doug Elmslie, is to initiate “community conversations.” Details are yet to come, but the target is fall 2019 for the first of these.

Join a Committee or Board  

Want to play an even larger role? Consider joining one of the boards or committees that provide advice and recommendations to Council. These are unpaid positions, of course, but in its online invitation to  apply the City website outlines what’s in it for you. You can “provide input into the strategic direction setting and decision-making” and “support local government in adequately addressing issues.” It’s also an opportunity, we’re told, to meet others and share your ideas and talents.

There are no fewer than 23 of these committees and boards and seats at the tables for up to 145 members of the public. All include one or more councillors but in all but one the public members are in the majority. (The one exception is the powerful Planning Advisory Board which has three citizens, three councillors, and the mayor). These committees and boards cover everything from A (Accessibility, Airport, and Agricultural Development Committees) to Z (well, almost –Waste Management and Wilson Estate).

Let’s take a closer look at one example, the Environmental Advisory Committee. The committee has up to 12 members: 9 members of the public, a representative from the conservation authority and Fleming College, and one councillor; its term is four years, like council’s (the range for committees is one to four years).

Like all committees, it has a detailed Terms of Reference  that sets out its mission and–in this case extensive–responsibilities. And as for all committees, vacancies for this one were posted online, along with an outline of the application process and an application that could be filled in and submitted online. Applicants were interviewed by a panel that included Tracy Richardson, the councillor who will be sitting on on the committee and Richard Holy, the city’s planning manager. They are submitting a list for council to approve.

No vacancies on any committees right now, which is unfortunate for those who’d like a seat at one of the tables. But no vacancies is maybe good news, too:  There seem to be lots out there who want to be fully engaged in shaping our community’s future and who have long ago passed Civic Engagement 101.

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Jamie is a retired teacher and Chair of the Kawartha Lakes Library Board. For The Lindsay Advocate he is reviving the 'Friends & Neighbours' column he wrote for the Lindsay Post, as well as writing a column on the library’s contributions to the community.

2 Comments

  1. You know, I agree with most of what Jamie has said, but I want to touch on something he hasn’t.

    Recently, I made a deputation to council and as part of that, I circulated a petition. One individual who is very well connected politically said that signing my petition would put a target on his back. I asked what he meant and he said that maybe bylaw would harass anyone who signed the petition.

    My petition sought support for correcting a policy that removed due process for committee members accused of ethics violations. I cannot imagine anyone being offended by it and certainly not to the extent of asking bylaw to harass the signatories.

    But whether coincidence or not, the week after I made my deputation, my garbage was not picked up.

    I have had other experiences in the past that suggest there may be some individuals in positions of authority who misuse bylaw resources for political reasons, including to silence or intimidate citizens who heed Jamie’s clarion call to get involved, especially if you think for yourself and/or speak truth to power, no matter how civil your intentions and how gracious your presentation.

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