Grey Highlands council is looking into ways to expand public engagement throughout the 2023 budget process.
On Jan. 5, council unanimously approved Councillor Dane Nielsen's motion to include an additional public meeting next year after deliberations are complete, but before ratification, and they also directed municipal staff to research methods to increase public engagement throughout the budget process.
Nielsen's notice of motion was brought forward as a result of the 2022 budget process, where members of the public expressed interest in a meeting regarding council's budget decisions before they were ratified.
A similar motion put forward by Councillor Paul Allen in December was ultimately voted down, as council had already ratified the 2022 budget.
"The concern with the way that was done, in my eyes, was that we had ratified the budget itself, and then tried to have a talk about going to the public," Nielsen said. "I didn't feel that that was an appropriate order of process, because it didn't allow council the opportunity to make any changes that may have come from a fulsome discussion with the public."
"What I'm wanting to do is simply add, as part of the process ... for the 2023 budget, ... a public open house at the close of [deliberations] but prior to ratifying at a special council meeting."
Council was initially split on the issue, with Councillor Cathy Little arguing that there was already adequate opportunity for public consultation, and that the right time for public engagement is towards the beginning of deliberations, prior to lengthy decision-making processes.
The municipality held two public open houses during the 2022 budget process.
"I appreciate the sincerity behind this motion, and I think having public engagement is critical," Little said. "I think that public input at the beginning and during the process is much more valuable then at the end, and so I guess my question is why aren't more people availing themselves of those opportunities?
"What is going to be gained from having a public meeting at [the end]? If it's to voice opinions, does that mean that we would turn around and change our minds after hearing from the public?"
CAO Karen Govan pointed out that it is typically difficult to inspire public engagement on financial deliberations.
"It's boring, unless you're invested in it completely as we are as staff and council," she said. "People don't want to sit through hours of it, but what they do see is the narrative that comes out of it and the impact to the bottom line."
"We've tried surveys, we have information going on our website, we have information going out on social media," Govan continued. "The reality is we have very little uptake in these meetings – people are just waiting for the outcomes so they can comment."
Nielsen said that the meeting could be looked at as an opportunity to explain council's decisions to the public.
"As we've kind of witnessed the public engagement picks up the further we get along in the process," he said. "I do feel [it] will benefit the members of council as well as the public because it's a last opportunity to explain and help to educate [the public on] what we did and why. And if there are specific things that the public is bringing up that the public vehemently disagrees with council on, it's kind of our responsibility to listen to that and take that into consideration."
Govan suggested that staff could research innovative ways to increase public engagement in the budget process, which council agreed with.
"I do know that there are some municipalities out there, maybe a little larger than ours, that are doing amazing things when it comes to the budget with interactive engagement," she said. "I think it's a good idea to research what the possibilities are out there."
"I spoke about it being boring. I mean, it doesn't have to be, we can take a different approach."
Greg McGrath-Goudie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca