June 3, 2023

The Queens County Citizen

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Much has been said about the age and gender of the new mayors elected in the last municipal elections. We’ve also talked about their environmental concerns, but there’s another aspect where they stand out: citizen participation.

Updated yesterday at 10:00 pm.

Mayors Fournier in Longueuil and Beaudin in Sherbrooke are already offering their populations new tools for citizen participation, tools that didn’t exist outside of Montreal until this spring.

In the traditional municipal world, there has always been resistance to the idea of ​​consulting citizens. The phrase “we get paid to decide” best captures the traditional attitude of elected officials, and the phrase “we’re the experts,” the attitude of civil servants. Therefore cities generally have tight control over public consultation processes when they exist.

Over the years, things have changed. On the one hand, citizens’ “expertise in consumption” is recognized.

No one knows a neighborhood better than the person who lives in it. On the other hand, citizens have never been so educated and so informed.

I once attended a meeting with a neighborhood association executive where all participants had at least a bachelor’s degree and most had a master’s or doctorate!

Urban sprawl, environment, homelessness, street or park redevelopment, zoning change, heritage, addition of recreational services, addition of bike paths, citizens expressing themselves and mobilizing on all matters. If citizens want to influence their city’s decisions, they also have many ways to do so, which they are happy to use: social media, traditional media, emails, text messages, city sites, elected officials’ sites, the good old telephone, etc.

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Hence cities have adopted civic participation mechanisms. These policies may be adequate in most cases that arise, but they contain a loophole that the two mayors want to close.

Municipal authorities are closely associated with all major projects of consultation, when they are not the clear designers. Therefore they often judge and be judged… and the citizens have the impression that the dice are loaded, that everything is arranged with a person of views, that they are organized more than they hear.

It is also developing what researchers call “event democracy,” or in other words, a “smoke show.”

We hold large consultation events that have no influence on decisions. Why? Because municipal officials control what is broadcast to elected officials, this is not a problem in most cases. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult for them to contradict their own work, even with great rigor and great sincerity, when it comes time to write consultation reports on projects they have helped to design themselves.

The first institutional response to this conflict of roles was given 20 years ago this year with the creation of the Office de Consultation Public de Montréal (OCPM). Until last spring, OCPM was, in the municipal world, Quebec’s only neutral and independent municipal public consultation body. Thanks to the mayors of Longueuil and Sherbrooke, two other large cities have now followed Montreal’s lead and each have an independent public consultation body.1.

I hope this is a big step for both cities and a decision that inspires others.

Community consultation is a relatively complex skill. This includes a specific relationship with politics, specific communication methods, the ability to distinguish between facts and opinions, strict rules of transparency, rare skills to create sometimes stormy debates, mechanisms without the opinion of civil servants or citizens. Uncovered, etc. The presence of an organization specializing in this field can enrich all municipal services and strengthen the credibility of the city, if not the state.

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Yes, elected officials are paid to make decisions, and they always make them at the end of consultation processes. Yes, civil servants have a valuable skill that they always have an opportunity to express. Yes, but citizen participation is a welcome extension of representative democracy. The city does not belong to civil servants or elected officials, but to all citizens. It is normal and desirable that their city be in their image, that it respect their will. Longueuil and Sherbrooke are leading us in that direction.