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OUT OF LEFT FIELD: A first-blush assessment of Castlegar's new public budget process

Kyra Hoggan
By Kyra Hoggan
January 31st, 2019

Last night was the first of three meetings intended to change the paradigm of how mayor, council and city staff present, not just the budget, but the budget process to the Castlegar public.

I’ll admit, when I first picked up the 19-page budget packet provided so attendees could follow along – page after page of lists, charts, numbers – I was grateful I had brought caffeine and anticipated hours of fighting to keep my eyes open.

I was pleasantly surprised, though, when I found myself quite fascinated by the proceedings, and learning more about the operational budget than I ever have in years past.

I believe Mayor Bruno Tassone did an excellent job of keeping the meeting moving at a brisk pace while allowing everyone to have their say (and I was particularly appreciative of how hard he worked to ensure everyone in the gallery could hear, as that has been an ongoing concern in the past, one he has obviously taken very much to heart).

Presenting department heads were clear, concise and pithy – I particularly liked that at the end of every page crammed with lists and numbers, they added two or three sentences saying what had changed and what they felt the important take-aways were. That was very helpful, for me.

Mayor, council and senior staff also did an excellent job of introducing moments of levity and light-heartedness to an otherwise sometimes tedious process (I would argue that top points go to Director of Finance Andre Buss for getting the loudest laugh of the evening, but that’s another column altogether, lol).

I had only two reservations, the first of which was this: it was one of the least-sexy elements of the budget (operations), whereas tonight’s meeting (capital investments) is where I expect the more heated debate to play out – and the meeting was still three-and-a-half hours long.

Assuming the upcoming two meetings are of equal length (they may even go longer), the full time-investment ask is 10-and-a-half hours in less than a week, and I find that prohibitive for your average member of the public.

Attendance was the worst I’ve ever seen in over a decade of covering Castlegar public budget meetings, with only five members of the community in the gallery, including a former city councillor/mayoral candidate.

So I called city CAO Chris Barlow and asked if perhaps it wasn’t, in fact, less transparent, even though it provided more information than in the past, simply by virtue of discouraging public attendance.

Bear in mind, the open house format of the past (a 15-minute presentation, with detailed charts, graphs and explanations covering the venue walls, a take-home budget package to peruse at one’s leisure, and senior staff, mayor and council on hand to answer questions and hear feedback one-on-one), allowed a person to spend as little as 20 minutes or as long as the entire evening familiarizing themselves with the material, depending on how much time they could or were willing to invest.

Barlow assured me that this open house will still take place – no engagement opportunity has been taken off the table, the only real change is that the meetings last night, tonight and on Monday were previously held in camera and have now been open to the public.

Problem solved.

Which brings me to my final reservation in what I think is actually a very educational process: will council be able to engage in the same level of vigorous debate with the public arm-chair quarterbacking the entire process?

I certainly think it will make it more difficult – but I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing. If you’re representing the public, you should be able to do so out loud and in public, no? If you’d say anything different behind closed doors than you would in front of a camera, perhaps that’s indicative of a larger problem in terms of representation.

I honestly don’t know the answer to that one, but time will tell, and I certainly think it’s worthwhile to give this new system an honest try before second-guessing its potential efficacy.

Which brings me to my final point, and the reason I’m a fan of this new approach despite the onerous scheduling burden it presents for me, personally – I learned several interesting details last night I would never have been able to isolate had the budget been presented as an entire fait-accompli.

That learning will inform portions of my coverage in the days, weeks and months to come.

My point being, even if the public doesn’t attend, if media are given a better understand of the workings of the budget, we’ll be better able to inform our readers, the electorate.

There will be times I can’t attend and the Castlegar News can, or vice-versa, or the radio stations will be there and we won’t – but as long as at least one media member garners new knowledge, the entire community benefits.

Furthermore, the public will be able to peruse the material in their own time once they are posted on the city website, and I think they’ll find the new presentation much easier to parse than in years past.

Ideally, the city will move forward with the proposed live-streaming capacity as well, so one day soon we’ll also be able to watch from home (and take bathroom breaks or make popcorn with missing any salient information).

Taken in all, I’m a fan, and very interested to see how the upcoming two meetings play out.

Watch for coverage of actual budget items in upcoming Source coverage.

 

Categories: Op/EdPolitics

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