Engaged – Crib Notes on Local Government

After I published my first blog article in late June 2016 titled “Crib Notes on Local Government,” readers asked for a sequel explaining just how the public can get involved and engaged with their local municipal council and government.  


While this may not be gripping material that keeps readers awake at night, it might be helpful to those who want to take a more active role in their community.  Please note that my point of reference for this article is largely based on my most recent council experience in Oak Bay.  For current information about processes in other municipalities in the CRD, please visit their individual websites.

The old saying “ignorance is bliss” begs the question:  so why should we pay attention to what happens in local government, especially when we know that getting involved takes more time and commitment from our already busy lives?  A valid question indeed but I have to tell you that during my fifteen years involved in community affairs (nine as a municipal councillor), I lost count of the number of times I was asked by residents who were not engaged or well informed, “How could council do that?  What’s going on at municipal hall?  Where’s the information?”

Nothing raises the community’s blood pressure about local issues quite like the public perception (real or imagined) that residents are not respected or have been excluded from important community decisions by their local council.  Whether or not their concerns are substantiated, it’s true that perception is everything in politics, particularly when information is either scarce or misleading.  In the absence of information, citizens are left to guess what goes on, neither of which serves the public or local government well.

Yes, best practices dictate that local government should regularly communicate and consult with its residents, but citizens also share a responsibility to become aware of how local government works and what its plans are for the community’s future.

We know that local councils are closest to their constituents but, ironically, low voter turn-out is all too common during municipal elections.  Some communities in the Capital Region can boast registered voter turn-out numbers approaching 40% or more but the average turn-out for civic elections, locally, provincially and nationally, is typically below 50%.

To say that this is problematic and troubling is an understatement; the government that has the greatest impact on daily quality of life is local government but, at election time, public interest and voter participation remain disappointing.  There are a variety of reasons for low voter turn-out such as age, employment and family status, rural and urban differences, weather and transportation to name a few.  Research suggests, however, that the main factors are voter apathy and citizens who are disengaged.

Effective local democracy is a unique combination of two main components — “representative democracy,” when citizens directly elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf (e.g. local government council members) and “participatory democracy,” when citizens are consulted by local government as much as possible.  To ensure that democracy is not only effective but also meaningful, communities have to be in touch with the work of their councils and council members have to be in touch with their communities.

So how do we raise voter interest and awareness in local government?  While reading them won’t necessarily keep you on the edge of your seat, getting started on raising awareness means getting familiar with two primary pieces of provincial legislation on local government in British Columbia, the Local Government Act and the Community Charter.  No one expects citizens to be legal experts, but having a basic understanding about how this legislation regulates and supports municipalities is a first step to understanding how local government makes decisions and delivers programs.

Public Participation:

An accepted governing principle and democratic cornerstone, public participation is essential to good and effective local government in two key ways — first, by making sure that council is informed and community needs are thereby adequately and appropriately addressed; and second, by helping to build an engaged and responsible community with a sense of ownership of local projects, initiatives and developments.

Every municipality follows a set of procedural rules (bylaws) that guide public participation.  These range from setting aside some time at the beginning of Council meetings to allow the public to address Council (applies to Oak Bay), to holding public hearings on significant land use changes planned for the community.  While municipal procedures and policies can change as communities change, it’s worth noting that opportunities for public input should be consistent and robust.

Public participation should not be simply a series of “one-off” events but instead, a systematic process geared to specific goals and plans that every municipality develops, sometimes called “strategic plans or priorities” (Oak Bay has both).  Because such planning most often focuses on delivering services, building infrastructure and developing projects, an important part of a municipality’s plan should include how to communicate everything to residents and how to involve them as decision-making partners.

With the exception of in-camera meetings, all council, committee of the whole and municipal commission and committee meetings are open to the public.  Times and dates of these meetings are posted on a municipal website.  Please note that local governments have available to them a range of internal communication options such as websites, newsletters, media announcements, notice boards and billing statements, to notify the public about events, activities and policy changes.

Remember, the purpose of public engagement is threefold:  to report back and remain accountable to residents about decisions, plans and budgets; to inform the public about new programs, services, fees, developments and policies; and, to create opportunities that involve residents as partners and stakeholders in civic projects.  There is also power in numbers — citizens can and do influence local government through critical mass!

  • Attending Regular Council Meetings and Webcasting

Head for the Halls!”  Public participation takes a variety of forms, from attending regular council meetings to making presentations to council on a specific topic.  Nothing beats being there, being present and aware of how council members conduct community business.  In Oak Bay (and in many local jurisdictions in the CRD), webcasting council and committee of the whole meetings is also now common practice.  If a member of the public cannot attend regular council meetings in person, webcasting technology allows them to view meetings through a live stream on their computer or to watch them at a later date, through access to archived webcasts on the municipal website (Oak Bay introduced webcasting for the first time in late May 2016).

  • Meeting with Individual Council Members

“Can We Talk?”  Residents can ask for a meeting with an individual council member (mayor or councillor) to talk about an issue, a concern or to request general information.  Council members should be accessible to residents at all times but generally, they should not make commitments, undertakings or promises on behalf of the municipality or Council.  They can take an issue forward to their colleagues for consideration and/or to staff for further action, or they can refer the resident to the appropriate municipal department for further assistance.

  • Writing to Mayor and Council

“Dear Mayor and Council…”  Residents who cannot attend regular meetings of council can express themselves in writing to Mayor and Council, either by letter or by email.  Contact information for both formats is normally available on a municipal website.  The Director of Corporate Services can provide additional advice to residents about the appropriate timing and protocols that guide written correspondence/submissions.  The advantage of writing to one’s local council is that the correspondence forms part of the meeting agenda and is, therefore, a matter of public record.  In some cases, residents can write or email individual council members but unfortunately, there is no obligation for the council member to either respond or to share the information with their colleagues and/or staff.

The best approach, therefore, is to address all correspondence, either written or digital, to “Mayor and Council” as a whole, with copies to the Chief Administrative Officer and the Director of Corporate Services.  Everyone sees it and if received in time for a Council or Committee of the Whole meeting, it can form part of the agenda.

Please visit the municipal website to get further information/details at https://www.oakbay.ca/home

  • Making Presentations

“Thank You for This Opportunity…”  Residents or groups concerned about a specific issue or topic that affects their neighbourhood or community, and want to share information about a specific project or initiative, can opt to make a formal presentation to mayor and council through a request to the Director or Deputy Director of Corporate Services.  A presentation can be verbal, written or use digital technology (e.g. Power Point).  Oak Bay’s Council Chamber is equipped with the technology to facilitate digital presentations and contacting the Director of Corporate Services ahead of time is required.

FYI, agendas are assembled ahead of each regular meeting, normally through consultation between the Mayor and Corporate Services staff.  In Oak Bay, agendas and related materials are released to the council and to the public the Friday prior to the next regular meeting of Council on Monday.  Therefore, timing and notice are important if planning to make a presentation and this information is available from municipal staff.

  • Town Hall Meetings, Petitions and Referenda

“We Are Gathered…”  Formal town hall meetings are usually called and hosted by the municipality and focus on a single topic/issue about which public feedback and input are needed.  But not all meetings are at the call of local officials — neighbourhood and community groups (community and/or neighbourhood associations) can host similar public meetings on issues or topics identified by their membership as significant and worthy of public discussion.

Citizens can also circulate petitions for signature and/or participate in public referenda, normally a formal process conducted by the municipality and coordinated with the municipal election cycle.  Town hall meetings are efficient and effective, geared to getting out as much information to as many residents as possible in the shortest time available.  While petitions and referenda can influence local decision-making, they are also labour intensive.

Each of these public consultation methods can be effective, especially when the issue is contentious or controversial.

  • Public Hearings

“Pursuant to Bylaw #…”  When it comes to local government activity that involves major community projects or land use plans (re-zoning for example), public hearings are prescribed and regulated through legislation or bylaw, are formal and require time sensitive advance public notice.

  • Commissions, Committees, Task Forces and Panels

“Volunteers Will Make a Difference.”  Most municipalities create and administer through individual bylaws, standing commissions, committees or panels that provide opportunities for residents to serve as volunteers.  In Oak Bay, there are commissions, a panel and Boards that involve appointed volunteers —  e.g. the Heritage Commission, the Advisory Planning Commission, the Parks, Recreation and Culture Commission, the Advisory Design Panel, the Board of Variance and the Police Board.

To address individual community topics or issues, the Mayor also has the discretion to strike a short-term task force and appoint volunteers to undertake and report on the results of its work, at which time the group is normally disbanded when the project is completed.

To each standing commission or committee, council appoints a councillor to serve as liaison and he/she is expected to attend regular meetings as a non-voting observer.  These meetings are open to the public and advertised on a municipal website.

In Oak Bay, applications from the public to serve on standing bodies are usually accepted in the fall of each year, reviewed by staff and Council, with appointments made by council at year’s end.  Information about how and when to apply is available through the municipality’s Corporate Services Department and ads to announce vacancies and application details will appear in the Oak Bay News.  Oak Bay, like other municipalities, has learned that volunteers increase local government capacity and make a remarkable difference to their communities through their invaluable dedication, skills and experience.

  • Local Media

“What’s Up With Council?”  Some residents contact local media on emerging community issues or about personal concerns, through Letters to the Editor or Op-Eds; both are popular and common options to citizens who want to publicly voice opinions and views about community affairs.  In my experience, this type of public exposure will often get the attention of local government and spark a response (depending on the nature of the issue and its potential impact).  Using local media responsibly is another form of public engagement.

If you have questions or want more information about how to get engaged with your municipality and local government, start by visiting your local municipality’s website.

I encourage citizens to become involved in local government, as observers or volunteers, as community leaders and advocates, because we can all make a positive difference to our communities and to the decisions that shape its future.

“Democracy is based upon the belief that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”

(Harry Emerson Fosdick)