Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Challenge of Remaining Informed & Engaged in Municipal Governance in Our Busy Modern World

Do our busy lives rob us of the time and energy required to be informed and engaged?

One of the most common statements I hear is that Meaford’s taxes are too high. I hear it throughout the year, in personal chats, in comments on social media, in email messages sent to me.

The topic of Meaford’s taxes, and the feeling that they are too high is by far what I hear most from residents, so it is perhaps surprising that the statutory public budget meeting held last week attracted just a couple of residents, who though they attended in person did not want to share any thoughts, or ask any questions. Two more residents had registered to share their comments and questions virtually, and those are the only two residents to publicly offer comments on the 2023 draft budgets to council.

Well, it’s 2023, Mr. Editor, obviously everyone was watching online. During the live stream of the meeting, which began at 6:30 p.m. last Wednesday, just five were watching. One was me, and we can safely assume that two others were the residents who participated online, leaving just two watching, and one of those was likely a municipal staffer.

Perhaps folks didn’t tune in live because they had other things to do, but instead watched the archived version of the meeting on the municipality’s Youtube channel, but a week later the meeting has had fewer than 100 views.

For all of the complaining we hear, the lack of engagement from residents during the statutory public budget meeting is no doubt confusing for members of council.

An unfortunate reality, however, is that many simply do not have the time to get engaged or involved. Work and family obligations can leave little time for delving into local governance or budgets. With many struggling to adjust their own household budgets in order to absorb a brutal year of inflation, time and energy to focus on municipal budgets might seem like an unattainable luxury.

Of course some might suggest that there is no excuse for not being informed and engaged, and I have fallen into that line of thought a time or two, but generally, I beg to differ.

The average resident who attends a council meeting is part of the grey hair demographic. An age group that is typically retired with nothing but time on their hands. Those in their 30s or 40s, and even 50s, are not well represented in the council chamber gallery. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few folks from those age groups that are engaged in municipal governance, but in the prime years of their working and family-raising lives the goings on at the local council chamber are not a top priority.

The first statutory public budget meeting I ever covered in Meaford more than a decade ago was held at the Meaford & St. Vincent Community Centre, and that meeting saw a turnout of more than 200 residents. That public budget meeting was held prior to social media taking a stronghold in our lives, in fact Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist in those days.

In these busy modern times, I think many now rely on social media in place of the in-person engagement of years past. If someone can’t attend the meetings but wants to feel informed, they might turn to social media for information and discourse. I have often seen someone suggest on social media that, rather than complaining in the social media ether, folks instead contact members of council directly, and a common response is that members of council are on social media so they will see the complaints, but not necessarily. Some members of council are quite active on social media, while others have no social media presence at all, so to rely on members of council seeing your comment in the sea of comments that are out there is perhaps unwise.

If you have some time to spare, the archived video of the statutory public budget meeting can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/live/gjPyqNd2dKo?feature=share. Given the lack of attendance, the meeting was a short one at just 36 minutes, with CAO Rob Armstrong making the budget presentation to an empty council chamber save members of council and staff. With the meeting lasting barely longer than the average television sitcom, the amount of time required is minimal, but believe it or not, democracy requires effort by all involved, including the average ratepayer.

Those wishing to provide feedback to members of council directly can email council@meaford.ca.

More information on the Municipal Budgets, including the schedule and how you can get involved, can be found at www.meaford.ca/Budgets. Paper copies of the budget are available upon request.

 

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