Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments pertaining to the creation of the City Charters through the Municipal Government Act. I am the Executive Director of Common Sense Calgary, an organization dedicated to providing a balanced dialogue about issues important to the citizens of Calgary.
Common Sense Calgary works in the best interests of Calgarians to promote fiscal and ethical responsibility at City Hall, and currently are advocating for no new proposed taxation powers in the City Charters, at least not without citywide referenda. In cooperation with several other organizations, we have been generating media and public awareness related to the proposed City Charters through a coalition titled, "See Charter, Think Tax."
I recently was invited to attend a stakeholder session at the McDougall Centre which took place on October 8, 2016. In addition to that event, I also attended three other recent civic engagements, including a second stakeholder event at McDougall Centre on October 9, and two public events, one at the Elks Golf Club and the Carriage House Hotel.
I am respectfully submitting this summary of observations I made at the four sessions I attended. Thank you for your attention to these comments which are meant to assist you in your planning of future public and stakeholder consultations.
1. Comment: Consultation Process
I noted a surprisingly low turnout by the public and stakeholders at these events. While these events were very well organized and well-staffed, and certainly gave the impression that the community was being consulted, only a very small portion of the population actually attended. In fact, I noted a disproportionate number of subject matter experts, facilitators, moderators and government staff compared with the number of stakeholders and the public. Public input and understanding is critical to this process and I don't believe that the Calgary engagement sessions provided an effective forum to adequately inform attendees about the City Charters. Perhaps another public session would be possible? If so, we would be happy to help spread the word among Calgarians.
An additional concern relates to the 25-page document that was provided at the events. While it offered an extensive amount of specific commentary on 74 different topics, in my opinion, it was difficult for the attendees to read, process and digest all of that information in one session. Additionally, a video playing at the Elks Golf Club had barely any sound and those watching had to sit within a foot of the speaker.
Attendees wrote comments on post-it notes which they then attached to chart papers on the walls. These comments reflected frustration and confusion with this process, with one reading, "The process you are using to engage people is a process to diffuse real concerns. How many people resources do I have to visit for answers." Another comment read, "Public engagement sessions don't allow attendees to hear others questions and concerns and the responses to them."
On November 9, 2016, Common Sense Calgary conducted a Twitter poll that asked: "As a Calgarian, do you feel that you understand how a City Charter will impact you?" Of the 36 responses, 39% replied Yes and 61% were No. A second poll was then run and garnered 40 votes. It asked, "Will a City Charter provide greater flexibility, power and authority to better meet the needs of Calgary citizens?" Again the responses were 28% Yes and 72% were No.
Understandably, the impact of the Charters will be far-reaching and may take your office a great deal of time to digest what they entail and decide how to implement them, so we certainly appreciate you taking the time to consider the foregoing suggestions.
It appears that there is a big push to have a Charter document ready for the municipal election in October 2017. We hope that this deadline will allow your committees enough time to obtain the appropriate consultation for such an important piece of legislation, but we fear that it might not. Our concerns include:
- Will the results of the engagement sessions be reviewed and presented to the public with enough time to ensure that the Charters are in fact what the citizens want?
- Within this time frame can you provide the public with enough information that they will be able to ask intelligent, informed questions about your decisions?
- Is it practical to properly address the disparate details on all of the aspects, including the financial implications of the Charters, in a few short months?
- It would seem that you will have to plan another round of engagements with the public to include the financial implications, it doesn't seem to make sense to repeat the same type of consultation process if so few citizens are actually engaged.
Hopefully, prior to any sort of City Charter being completed, there will be a meaningful, organized opportunity for stakeholders and citizens to make their concerns known. I would suggest that working groups which incorporate public and stakeholders as well as oral or written presentations to government could provide greater insight to the process on how the charter will impact our citizens.
2. Points of Concern: Financial Implications
One of the main concerns regarding the engagement sessions is that they did not provide the public or stakeholders with any information regarding the financial implications, taxation or new taxation powers. Consequently, the stakeholders and public were left with many unanswered questions. Noted on many of the post-its were comments mentioning taxes, taxation powers and financial implications. One comment spoke loudly on this point, "I don't want the city to have taxation (of any kind) powers. No Net Tax increases."
Attendees who questioned the details of a possible tax increase on many of the topics presented in the session material were told by the staff that information relating to taxes would be addressed in 'Phase Three' sometime in the new year. The absence of such information, particularly about the financial component, caused a huge disconnect behind the idea of the City Charters and what this expansive and extremely important piece of legislation would mean to the average citizen.
Pivotal questions are "How will the Charters be funded?" "Will funding involve increased taxation or a redistribution of collected taxes?" "How will this question be answered after the consultation process is completed?" Such questions were shrugged off at the events, which created confusion, and skepticism and probably mistrust among the attendees.
In closing, thank you for considering the foregoing comments and discussion points with regard to the City Charters. My intent is to help make positive change so that the citizens can challenge and accept the findings, good or bad, with a greater understanding of the government's decisions. My hope is that the future Charters will provide maximum benefit to the greatest number of Albertans and Calgarians possible.