In the lead up to the creation of its 2014 municipal budget, Summerside city council hosted a public meeting to engage the public and to seek input. It was a barometer-type exercise.
Sadly, it was poorly attended. Mostly, we think, because it lacked promotion and was too close to the holiday season. Those who did attend were the usual gaggle of suspects – business types, community organizers, etc. This is not a knock on those people, indeed we need them, they are important and vital to the process. But we also need a broader base of the citizenry (the presently disengaged) to join them.
It would have been easy after the first session for councillors to say that the public interest just wasn’t there to continue the process. So it surprised us, pleasantly, when council said it will, despite last year’s poorly attended meeting, try again to engage the public in 2014; this time with a series of meetings.
In that meeting last December, the city opened the books in an effort to explain how revenue is collected and where it is spent. Taxpayers were given four topics to be discussed. The questions asked: What city programs and services are most important? How should the city deal with the costs of delivering these programs and services? Should the city increase its $68-million debt to take on significant infrastructure projects? How can the city be more effective with tax dollars and what areas could be trimmed?
Deputy Mayor Bruce MacDougall, chairman of the city’s financial services committee, said the exercise with residents and businesspeople helped form the 2014 budget.
It seems unlikely that a single, poorly attended meeting had too much sway on the final outcome of the budget, but a series of well attended meetings with an engaged public and an open-minded council certainly could. And that’s something both residents and council should keep in mind in this an election year.
MacDougall said creating a budget is difficult and means hard choices. He’s right, but no one ever said democracy was easy.
As taxpayers and citizens of this community (or any community for that matter) we owe it too ourselves to be engaged, and in Summerside, council has just taken away our excuse to be disengaged. It’s up to us to make an effort and up to them to hear us out with an open mind.
Council has kind of given taxpayers a ‘put up or shut up’ scenario, and while that wording may be harsh, it is no less true. And if we don’t like what they do with that information, well, that’s why we have elections every four years.