Can governance reform bring citizens back to city hall?

Last night, at a panel discussion held by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, former Chief Planner Paul Bedford put out his thoughts on reworking the governance structure of Toronto, with responses from Board of Trade VP Richard Joy and Councillor Kyle Rae.

Bedford's ideas include having a portion of our city councillors elected "at large" (or within districts similar to the borders of the previous municipalities that now make up the city), creating between 11 and 22 Neighbourhood Advisory Committees (with the retention of the current Community Councils being optional), and resourcing those committees with city staff. Other potential ideas included re-creating a Board of Planning, instituting a development permit system, and having the Chief Planner report directly to Council rather than to the Deputy City Manager (as is now the case). All of these proposals, say Bedford, are within the power of the City to do without any need for legislative change.

His goal is to make amalgamation work more effectively. And his suggested principles - which include achieving a better balance between local and city-wide matters, encouraging more courageous decision-making, and "unleashing the potential" of Torontonians to participate in city government - are unimpeachable. But would these reforms really fix city planning and give people a meaningful voice in the process?

No doubt about it, community engagement is getting onto the urban agenda these days. Bedford's proposals are designed, in part, to encourage the participation of citizens and non-citizens alike in citybuilding, and his ideas merit careful consideration. But in questions from the floor after the panel, transit blogger Steve Munro put his finger on the fundamental issue when he asked a question to the effect of whether these reforms would result in genuinely meaningful public engagement - or just more of the same?

Personally, I like the idea of Neighbourhood Advisory Committees - we have been developing proposals for something similar ourselves here at PPT, known as Neighbourhood Action Councils (same acronym!), which we believe should be involved in any significant neighbourhood planning or development project at the earliest stages.  But such groups will need real power to influence the culture at City Hall, and that means somehow assigning their decisions legal weight.   All of these proposals are important to discuss, but there's much hard thinking still to be done about how to implement them in a way that leads not just to more "consultation", but to real, systemic change.

Sat, 2013-02-16 12:33

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