1. The consultation announcement
The following is an excerpt from the City of Charlottetown’s online announcement dated Thursday, December 16:
Residents, stakeholders and local businesses are invited to have their say on the City of Charlottetown’s 2022/2023 Annual Capital Budget. Community members are invited to provide comments on what they would like to see reflected in the upcoming budget. The input will help to inform Council’s deliberation of the proposed budget, ahead of approving the final budget. […] This year, written feedback is being accepted until 12 p.m. (noon) on Friday, January 14.
2. How the City and the media failed the public
The online announcement appeared on that Thursday in “News and Notices” on the City’s Web site. Whoever missed it for the time it was on the main screen would have no knowledge about the call for public input.
What’s more, the budget consultation invitation is not featured on the Home page. Mainly because there is no section on the home page to promote public engagement. A curious citizen could do a search using “Budget 2022”.
It would be hard to guess that the announcement is located under Finance in the Mayor & Council section and reduced to two words: Annual Bugdet.
The striking absence of any action by the City to engage and involve the public prompted a query to the City of Charlottetown Communications Officer on Wednesday, January 5: “Was this announced in the media, either through a press release or a public notice? I have not been able to find anything on The Guardian‘s or CBC’s web sites.”
The same-day reply: “A Public Service Announcement was sent to media and community groups on December 16, 2021. I have attached the link to our City news article that is posted on our website.”
A follow-up question “Will a notice (i.e. ad) be published in The Guardian this Saturday?” was sent Thursday morning, January 6, to which no reply was received. [No municipal notice was found in The Guardian between December 16 and January 10]. A second follow-up e-mail sent Monday mid-day, January 10, remained unanswered by the end of the day.
With its one online announcement on December 16, the City has clearly failed in its duty to adequately inform citizens and raise awareness about the annual budget consultation. The administration also failed in its responsibility to verify that the media published the Public Service Announcement in a timely manner.
“Good practice for good governance in a public sector organization involves actively communicating with internal and external stakeholders, inviting feedback (even complaints).”Public Sector Governance ‛A Guide to the Principles of Good Practice’,
Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia
What’s more, it appears that the City has no established public consultation/engagement process. Or if it does, it applies it in a rather inconsistent manner.
A comparison of other Canadian cities revealed that they begin their public engagement process with a survey and/or a round (or two) of public feedback on the draft budget. Examples from 2020 and 2021 include Regina, Kamloops, West Kelowna, Ottawa, and Quesnel. Kamloops and Ottawa provide a short explanatory video on how city budgets work, and Ottawa even organizes councillor-led meetings.
Conclusion: the City has clearly no defined or recognized participatory budgeting process that reaches all residents.
Perhaps the next administration would be open to following these three crucial things to consider when planning the next budget consultation:
- Explain the current budget spending levels in an easily digestible way
- Ask the community about their budget priorities
- Explain the impact of increased spending [if any] in real terms
Why did CBC and The Guardian not communicate the City’s public service announcement?
The Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Guidelines state, under Accountability:
- We are accountable to the public for the fairness and reliability of our reporting.
- We serve the public interest, and put the needs of our audience – readers, listeners or viewers – at the forefront of our newsgathering decisions.
3. The province also has a part to play
A search of the Municipal Government Act, which “provides the legislative framework that is necessary for municipal governments in the Province of Prince Edward Island to create and sustain safe, healthy, orderly and viable communities”, contains all of twenty-seven words with respect to a municipality’s obligation to the public:
Section 151. Public meeting
(1) Not less than two weeks before adopting its financial plan, the council shall give public notice and hold a public meeting in respect of the financial plan.
This Act, passed in 2017, has many gaps and ambiguities. It is in dire need of a thorough review and a serious overhaul to bring it in line with good governance best practices. The Municipal Government Act requires a more robust legistative framework if municipalities are to be truly orderly and viable.
- City of Ottawa How your city budget works (3 minutes 50 seconds)
- City of Kamloops Basic intro to the City and Budgeting (1 minute)
- Increase participation in local government
- Community Engagement in Government
- Three crucial things to consider when planning the next budget consultation
For online written submissions, visit charlottetown.ca/budget.
Report an error, or send a question or comment by e-mail to:
newcharlottetownproject @ eastlink.ca