By Andre Carrel
The Community Charter (sec. 166) requires municipal councils to “undertake a process of public consultation regarding the proposed financial plan before it is adopted.” Council scheduled the adoption of the provisional budget for January 27. The January 16 public meeting thus satisfied the letter of law, but did it realize the Charter’s intent?
What are the characteristics of a “process of public consultation”? The Dictionary of Canadian Law defines ‘consultation’ as a “discussion with a view to mutual agreement or understanding, but does not include conciliation, arbitration or any other form of process or authority binding on the parties thereto.” The Charter’s reference to a ‘process’, which means “a systematic series of actions directed to some end”, entails more than one public question and answer meeting.
In mid-December, I asked the city for information on three items listed on its web page: (1) RCMP – an analysis of the increased call volume; (2) Firefighters – an analysis of the risks to sustainable operations for the fire department, and (3) temporary support: an analysis of the anticipated additional workload relating to LNG projects.
The city invited me to attend the December 17 public budget meeting at which time these issues would be discussed. Responding to verbal presentations with off the cuff questions is not an appropriate way to address a massive tax increase. I was looking for written material to help me frame germane questions.
We have been entertained for years by LNG announcements about investments in the tens of billions and jobs by the thousands. We were never forewarned that a massive increase in property assessments and a massive property tax increase are often the first tangible impacts of a development boom on municipalities. Terrace is not the first municipality to experience such a situation. Council was aware of that reality; the provisional budget confirms that.
The recent blast of winter made it abundantly evident that our municipality’s challenges are not limited to law enforcement and fire protection. With our ever-expanding road, water, and sewer infrastructure we are also facing major public works challenges. With a view to what lies ahead, a ‘process of public consultation’ should have moved council to engage the public as early as last summer in discussions on long-term priorities. On reaching an ‘understanding’ of (if not ‘agreement’ on) the community’s long-term priorities, council could then have directed staff to develop a financial plan within that priority framework.
A ‘process of public consultation’ in a situation such as we face in Terrace, calls for more than a public accounting of bottom-line decisions. The provisional budget was scheduled to be approved eleven days after the January 16 public meeting. This short time frame did not allow for consideration of priorities other than those already determined by council. That decision was no longer subject to consultation.
Council’s decision to abandon the flower basket program, notwithstanding public pleas to retain it, is cynical. Residential taxes are projected to increase by an average of $120. Eliminating the flower baskets will save me the cost of one grande latte with a cookie. A short-lived pleasure compared to the loss of a summer-long delight in flower baskets.
The mayor was quoted to be ‘frustrated’ that only one person attended the January 16 budget meeting. In view of council’s consultation parody, I am surprised that even one person bothered to make the effort.