How To Build Your Own Community
That's the percentage of Langley Township residents who cast a vote in the most recent municipal election. This is over five percent lower than the Province-wide average for municipal elections, and well below the most recent Provincial and Federal elections, which both had turnouts in the 60s.
Municipal politics is often seen to be the forgotten cousin, however what many people do not fully appreciate is that the effects of the decisions made at the municipal level usually have a more profound impact on people’s lives than Victoria or Ottawa. With that in mind, it can be disheartening to see a lack of interest and enthusiasm in our local politics. That could be for a number of reasons: some folks don’t see the point, some don’t like politics in general, and some don’t feel heard by their local government.
The Township does its best to inform residents of community open houses and residents are encouraged to attend as many open houses as they can. Unfortunately, however, if the residents don’t see their opinions and concerns acted upon when it comes to budget time, many throw up their hands and say: “what’s the point of attending these open houses?” Now, there is no magic wand to wave that would reverse this perception and make people aware of the real impact of local government decisions, but there certainly are steps that can be taken to help in the process. Importantly, those steps should include novel ideas besides something like forcing people to vote through mandatory voting like is seen in Australia.
As a possible solution to the lack of engagement at the grassroots level, this author would like to introduce Participatory Budgeting (PB). The PB Process is being used in many cities around the world to bring decision-making right to the grassroots level. It does this by giving residents in communities the power to vote directly on how a portion of their city’s budget is spent. In some places, like New York City, the amount is in the millions of dollars. In others, like Toronto’s pilot project, the amount was $150,000 to start (it’s now up to $250,000). In the Township of Langley, this author believes we should start small, but dream big.
Langley Township has a unique fabric - we are a community of communities. In fact, we can identify as many as seven distinct communities. Each of these unique communities should be provided the opportunity to vote on the improvements they need. Thus, any funding under a PB Process would be divided into seven funding envelopes. For those who might say that Langley Township is too diverse and has too many different communities for the proposed project to function properly, precedence says otherwise. The Participatory Budgeting (PB) process works in five boroughs and 31 districts in New York City. It works in many cities in the United Kingdom. The City of Toronto has run a pilot in three of its wards, and countries in South America and Asia have been using the process to improve their neighbourhoods for years.
So how does the process work? It’s actually quite simple, but proper execution is crucial. Even though it can be a year-long process to bring it from the planning stage to the implementation stage, the benefits of Participatory Budgeting is that it allows the electorate to have some direct control over their own neighborhood’s development and helps the grassroots build better communities.
Considering the New York City example, one can imagine Langley’s process would look something like the following:
Step One is the planning and explanation stage. Through information sessions and community meetings, residents and stakeholders learn about the PB process and form a community PB Committee to plan the process. This step could be facilitated by Township Staff.
Step Two is the idea generation stage. Through community meetings and online methods, residents are given some background information on the budget and then brainstorm project ideas and select delegates who will facilitate the next step in the process.
In Step Three, these community delegates meet in committees to transform the community’s initial project ideas into full proposals, with support from experts from (ideally) a variety of fields, including Township Staff. The PB Committees assess project proposals and work to advance those that meet the most pressing community needs.
In Step Four, the PB Committee presents the final project proposals at an open community meeting, and the residents vote on which projects to fund through a variety of methods. This voting happens simultaneously in each of Langley Township’s seven communities.
Finally, in Step Five, the winning projects are included in the Township Council’s budget adopted at the annual March budget meeting. PB Committee members, delegates and other participants oversee the implementation of projects by Township agencies.
The point of Participatory Budgeting is to give the residents of a community the opportunity to directly engage in how public dollars are spent. Examples of projects completed with funds from the PB process include improvements to parks and playgrounds, modern equipment for local schools, improvements to public spaces in the form of seating, lighting, or beautification, and numerous other meaningful improvements. For a look at the many fine examples New York City has undertaken,visit this website - it’s brilliant. You’ll note that the New York City website allows anyone to submit an idea for their district, and offers examples of the different types of projects - transit, public health, housing, seniors, etc.. There are general guidelines that the projects must follow as well as guidelines for specific type of projects. The website offers examples of both project-specific guidelines, and also sets out some general guidelines which Langley Township could incorporate in its process.
For example, two guidelines would no doubt be:
Eligible ideas must be for "capital" projects: physical infrastructure for public benefit, such as park improvements or new technology for schools; and
“Expense" projects, such as after-school programs or expanding bus service, are not eligible.
In an environment where spending is under a microscope, how could Langley’s PB Process be funded? Assuming that the program will start with a only a relatively small amount of funding, finding the dollars within the Township’s budget shouldn’t be too difficult given the population growth and tax roll growth. For example, one could imagine the $500,000 currently allocated for ‘U-District Housing’ - which has no written justification in the 2019 Township Budget Package (page 515) - being split seven ways for the seven communities; the result being each community in Langley would have over $70,000 this year to put towards improvements that the residents themselves deemed necessary. That $70,000 could be allocated to purchase equipment for a local school, to fund accessibility improvements at public buildings and spaces, create public greenhouses, and undertake sidewalk repairs or construction (a full list of other examples can be found here). Currently, Langley Township doesn’t have the mechanism that cities such as NYC have where their Councillor’s are allocated a certain amount of money to use as discretionary spending within their wards, but that doesn’t mean Langley couldn’t allocate a relatively small amount of money from its current budget to fund these types of worthwhile projects.
Would the proposed implementation of a made-in-Langley form of the Participatory Budgeting process solve our lack-of-engagement woes? That is unclear. Would it give power to the people of our community and enable each of the Township’s unique areas to implement local solutions to their issues? Certainly. Further, by keeping the age limits on participating in the process as low as possible - in some cities children as young as eight years old can provide ideas and vote - we can contribute to our young people becoming more involved in our communities and become voters and engaged citizens for life. Young people’s involvement is important given the many studies that show that cities designed with children in mind are often the best cities.
The main argument against implementing a PB process here in our Township is probably not a mindset of “We can’t”, because we most certainly can. The primary opposition to the PB process would likely be from politicians and community leaders too afraid to embrace positive, city-shaping ideas. We can have innovative, game-changing initiatives happen right here in the Township of Langley, we just need to be innovative, to put on our gumboots, roll-up our sleeves, and get to work.