Our democracy is broken! If it is not broken then it is certainly suffering and on life-support. I make this claim based on the evidence that we are currently seeing the lowest voter turnout rates than we’ve seen over the last century. During the last Federal election we had the lowest turnout in the past 100 years at 61.1%. At the provincial level the last turnout was 49.2%, a record low. And, at the municipal level the voter turnout in London was a measly 39.9%. How can we have a democracy when less than half of the eligible voters show up?
Although there are many factors to take into account when trying to understand the apparent political apathy of the majority of Londoners, I believe one reason is that Londoners feel disconnected from their political leaders; that they feel that their vote and voice do not count beyond election day. Once the ballots are cast, the citizen’s job is done and the politicians can get on with business. The truth is democracy cannot just happen one day every four years; it must be part of our culture, part of our everyday lives. If democratic process and activity is not part of our culture, how can we expect people to be active, empowered, and engaged citizens?
Cities and municipal politicians can take a leading role in creating a culture of democracy and I’d like to briefly share one piece of the puzzle about how I think this can happen: The creation of Ward Councils.
What is a Ward Council?
In brief, I envision that each ward across the city would establish a council which would act as a main point of access between ward citizens and their councillor. Such a council would be made up of an agreed upon number of residents and representatives from local organizations/institutions from within the ward. The Ward Council would become known as the place to be updated and engaged in any number of Ward issues, projects, decisions, and developments. The council could even act as informal (citizen) bureaucrats for the councillor, reviewing city council meeting agendas and preparing briefs and background information for the councillor to be prepared to make informed decisions. As well, any materials (such as video cameras, event equipment, etc.) purchased by the Ward councillor with their discretionary funds would become property of the Ward council to be held in common and lent out for various uses across the ward. The purpose of the council would be as follows:
1. Accountability – Create a space where the Ward can advise ward councillor on issues and direction of the ward and vice versa
2. Transparency - Create a formal visible platform (with terms of reference) for ward constituents to engage municipal issues on a regular basis and hear from their councillor
3. Promote Citizenship – It will provide ongoing opportunity and infrastructure for citizens to directly impact decisions about their ward and the municipality at large
4. Community Development – through the bridging and bonding social capital that develops through regular ward level meetings the opportunity to implement or support community development projects that meet the needs or build on the strengths of the Ward would become ever more possible.
5. Building Infrastructure for Ward Level Participatory budgeting – Ward Councils are a building block that could lead to real participatory budgeting for wards. This would likely involve a small sum of money out of the budget each year that Ward councils could work collaboratively to allocate across the ward for various projects.
Ward Councils fit within City of London Policy
In 2011/12 the City of London initiated a Community Engagement Task Force to search out ways of nurturing citizen engagement in municipal issues and to clarify what exactly citizen ‘empowerment’ means. The policy was supported by city staff and passed in Council in early 2012. The idea of ward councils is very much in line with the policy outcome and in terms of the mission and definition of community engagement within that framework.
Taken From: Appendix “A” of City of London Community Engagement Policy
Mission of Community Engagement Policy:
To effectively inform, educate and engage citizens in a transparent and collaborative manner that promotes greater participation in municipal government.
Definition of Community Engagement:
Community engagement is the process of meaningful two-way dialogue and participation in forming decisions that affect the community. The community engagement process is transparent, responsive, inclusive and empowering and is based on realistic expectations, mutual respect and trust
Councillors are equipped to Start Now
There is no need to wait to have the notion of Ward Councils passed through city council or to wait to be given funding to start the councils (although in the long run both pieces would be good). Any councillor who is willing can establish a Ward council. According to the rules outlining Councillor Expenses – Chapter 28 (2) (sec C, vi, vii, ix, x) a councillor can spend their discretionary funds on renting a hall to run ward meetings, pay for advertising of public meetings, and hire an assistant to help set up such meetings. This would be a great starting point.
It is my hope that ward councils can become a platform issue in the upcoming municipal elections. I think that they have the potential to invigorate local politics to an ever wider group of citizens and that we can, here in London, set the example for what democratic citizen engagement looks like.