The community forums essentially appear to be ‘focus groups’, with the City leaders following the example of marketers by convening small group discussions where those who pay for services can talk about how future offerings could better address the needs and wants of those who live here.
I’m not sure if low turn outs reflect public apathy over the issues - people here usually have thoughts about how the place is run - or just lack of interest in this particular format. Some people are into focus groups and some are not, much like some studiously fill out questionnaires while others throw them away, and some conscientiously answer pollsters’ questions while others hang up the phone with less than their usual courtesy.
No one needs to make excuses or offer regrets for non-attendance. The only citizens who should put or shut up on occasion are those who don’t bother to vote then subsequently complain.
The forums, even though not well attended, seem to have helped the city staff develop some policy ideas. I see, for instance, that the staff used citizen feedback to draft suggested revisions to the proposed revitalization tax break bylaw.
It’s good that the city staff get out and talk to some of the people who ultimately bankroll their salaries. Hopefully, the staff were sufficiently into the spirit of things that they donated their time (like the citizens who attended), rather than later clocking off from their regular duties at time and a half in lieu. In any event, it sounds like they did okay, and maybe better than that, at the forums held thus far.
I don’t quite see, though, why the council has rejected out of hand the more open-ended format of a town hall style meeting where mayor and councillors take centre stage and lead the discussions. Focus groups shouldn’t be viewed as an alternative, as in it’s either one or the other. Both have their place.
There is something pretty fundamental in a democracy about those in power stating their views in public and inviting those who are not in power to pose questions, rhetorical or otherwise, or offer comments. Parliament would be rather hollow if question period was abolished and replaced by a focus group. All-candidates meetings would not be very interesting if everyone broke into little scrums to meet and greet those seeking office.
Would a meeting where citizens could raise whatever issues are on their minds somehow threaten the peace, order and good government of the city? I doubt it.
I suspect that even if there were some verbal fireworks, or the meeting was otherwise somewhat haywire, on balance citizens would feel a bit better about how they’re governed, and about the people who make the decisions (all too often in meetings from which the public is excluded) if citizens were empowered to set the topics for discussion for a change.