Politicians need better ways to consult public, less theatre

By Robert Washburn

Northumberland MP Rick Norlock was pretty busy last week racing around meeting with interest groups and residents around the upcoming federal budget as part of a series of public consultations in Campbellford and Cobourg.

However, the federal government is not the only one asking the public for its input on budgets. Municipal councils throughout Northumberland will be hunkering down over stacks of reports and spreadsheets working with sharp pencils trying to figure out how much they will need to collect for 2013.

Cobourg seems to have an almost unending budget process. Whispers of budget talks started in August of last year, with Deputy Mayor Stan Frost, the politician in charge of budget preparation, coming out in September to announce the process was underway. At that point, it was mainly getting figures together and to start up the process.

Since then, there are lots of veiled references during debates about expenses and putting off costs or items for the 2013 budget. Then, on Monday night he announced he is going to the public on Feb. 4 to consult with taxpayers.

Port Hope is ahead of the game.

Council is holding its initial blush at the 2013 municipal budget on Jan. 15. A draft was published on its website encouraging public input. With a proposed five per cent increase over 2012; it will be easy to anticipate plenty of public reaction.

In a very telling moment, Budget Committee chair Councillor Rick Austin said he did not anticipate a lot of input this early in the process, saying it usually comes once the final draft is complete. The former mayor is spot on in his assessment.

Still, from the public’s point of view, there is a good reason.

Often, politicians and bureaucrats like to float out initial budget figures that include a wish list of items. The tax increase is usually high. Like a trial balloon, it gives them a chance to measure public reaction. If this is followed by a negative reaction from the public, suddenly politicians and bureaucrats sit down, slash a couple of items and the budget comes back to council with lots of chest thumping as they congratulate themselves for listening to the public.

Nothing could breed more cynicism. And, it is no wonder the public ignores the process until the end.

Rarely are fundamental questions asked about taxes and services; and, it is with good reason. The recent battle over policing in Port Hope shows how difficult it is to debate questions surrounding services and costs. And, nobody wants do lose anything. Who would want to see cuts to Christmas Magic in Victoria Park or fireworks on Canada Day, let alone slashing the fire department to part-time or not send out fire rescue when an ambulance is called?

Then, there are those cases where the decisions are made in a sneaky fashion, like the funding cuts to the Help Centre of Northumberland, an organization, who provides critical help to people on social benefits with problems getting financial aid, housing and access to services. The county government cut $93,000 without any public input or debate.

The entire act of consulting with the public needs to be revisited by local politicos. Norlock’s meetings were held at 1 p.m. and 10 a.m., both times most working people couldn’t attend. Municipal budget chiefs need to create a more open, comprehensive approach to public input that goes beyond an hour meeting before council or a divisive marathon review that pits the community against council.

There must be better ways to do this giving more people more accurate and accessible information, easier ways to express their opinions and suggestions, along with a less confrontational style for fundamental reform.