The Yukon’s Municipal Act is a rare beast among Canadian local government statutes; it includes a preamble stating the legislation’s philosophical principles.
One such principle is “that public participation is fundamental to good local government.” What applies to Yukon communities surely applies to communities everywhere, including Terrace.
The principle of public participation is not an addendum to democratic government; it is the essence of it.
How could a democracy be sustained without the citizens’ active participation?
Elections are not about issues that confront the community; they are concerned with the formation of a council who shall make future local government decisions.
Candidates for council may state positions on topical issues in the lead-up to an election, but their election cannot be interpreted to mean that citizens are in agreement with their positions on every issue.
Citizens may vote for a candidate’s knowledge and experience, but that does not amount to a blanket endorsement of that candidate’s stand on any and all issues, present and future, that find their way on council’s agenda.
British Columbia’s Community Charter is not as democratically progressive as the Yukon’s Municipal Act.
But it does give municipal councils a blanket authority (section 83) to “seek community opinion on a question that the council believes affects the municipality.”
We elect councils to make decisions on our behalf; to second-guess every council decision would paralyze local government and suffocate democracy.
There are landmark decisions, however, that continue to affect the community long after the decision is made.
The Terrace Co-op building and My Mountain Co-op are examples of issues calling for decisions whose impact extends far beyond the day a decision is made.
Council has seven members, but it only takes four votes to make a binding decision.
Should decisions with the potential for consequences that affect the community long after the term of the councils who made the decision has expired, be left to four people?
Municipalities must adopt a new five year financial plan every year, and the Community Charter stipulates that council “must set out the objectives and policies of the municipality for the planning period” in question (section 165).
Why not budget for an annual plebiscite to obtain the public’s support for the financial plan’s objectives and policies?
Such a plebiscite would engage citizens in their own governance and provide council with a democratic mandate to make the many decisions that will be necessary in the pursuit of the agreed-to objectives and policies.
In Canadian tradition plebiscite results are not binding. The legal responsibility for decisions made on the basis of a plebiscite would still rest with council; the community however would bear political responsibility.
Public participation by way of plebiscites contributes to good local government because it engages the public in decisions on goals, objectives, and policies affecting the community without the distraction of those personality issues common to elections.
Regular annual plebiscites would raise the community’s awareness on a multitude of issues.
Such public engagement would raise the public’s alertness when unexpected issues arise.
This in turn would foster a willingness and readiness to tackle the unexpected rather than ducking responsibility, procrastinating, and passing blame.
The cost of a plebiscite is roughly one dollar per capita; a few pennies if held in conjunction with an election.
Who would not be prepared to pay a buck for a say in the municipality’s objectives and policies that will guide council in decisions on issues such as the former Terrace Co-op building or Shames Mountain?
And which council member would not appreciate the public assuming a share of the responsibility for such decisions?
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator now living in Terrace, BC.