Letter to the editor, Jan. 25, 2018
The back and forth letters between St. Lazare residents Benoît Tremblay and Comiso La Rosa in The Journal ‘Letters to the Editor’ have at times raised the issue of ‘voter apathy’ and problems of getting voter participation in municipal elections/affairs. In reality, there exists a tried and tested method to increase voter participation in municipal affairs which has been in existence since 1989 – it is called ‘Participatory Budgeting’ where citizens are included in determining how tax revenues will be used.
Started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, ‘participatory budgeting’ is now used in over 1,500 locations around the world including towns, cities, schools, neighbourhoods, institutions etc. The ‘participatory budgeting’ process works by having residents suggest spending ideas on specific issues or specific amounts, then after public debate the council follows what the majority of residents decide. The residents who participate must have voted in the last election and must attending the ‘participatory budgeting’ meetings rather than just having some sort of online voting. It appears that when residents participate in the decision of how their taxes are spent, a large number of people get involved.
Presently municipal budgets are prepared behind closed doors, with only the mayor, councillors and directors being involved. Residents may get just one meeting to make comments, but they are then told what their taxes will be spent on, after the budget is finalized behind closed doors. ‘Participatory budgeting’ on a municipal level should include multiple meetings and wide public disclosure of the suggestions and process.
Admittedly councillors are democratically elected to govern, ensure fiscal responsibility, maintain services, and protect residents. However, 100 or 1000 plus residents will have more creative or more economical solutions on how to spend tax revenues. The majority of voters in St. Lazare may not agree with the administration’s ‘behind closed doors’ decisions.
A starting point may be for the St. Lazare council to use some sort of ‘participatory budgeting’ on part of the budget, like the Au Galop budget, or the new infrastructure budget. The basic idea is to increase voter participation, and if ‘participatory budgeting’ generates better services, balanced budgets, or even surplus budgets, it would be well worth the effort. The big question... Would the mayor and councillors of St. Lazare be so democratic as to try such an idea?
Google search “participatory budgeting ideas” to find out how other cities, towns/institutions are using this system.