Thursday, 5 April 2012

Citizen Engagement in Hamilton Ontario: A Citizens’ Forum on Area Rating of Property Tax

By Denise O’Connor, PhD, Principal Consultant, Moving Perspective

Chris Murray, City Manager, City of Hamilton

Tim L. Dobbie, TL Dobbie and Associates

 This article appeared with minor edits in the Winter 2011 Edition of Public Sector Digest

This article describes an innovative citizens` engagement project sponsored by the city of Hamilton. In 2010 a citizens’ forum was selected from a pool of citizens, randomly generated from the tax roll, who reflected the demographics and geography of the amalgamated city of Hamilton. This group of citizens was asked to develop a recommendation for council on how to move forward on the complicated and emotional issue of area rating of property tax, ten years after amalgamation. 

The idea of bringing together a group of citizens and asking them to produce an informed position on a public policy issue is a means of bridging the gap between citizens and government by creating a space for citizens to explore all facets of an issue and engage each other in dialogue.  On behalf of their fellow citizens, they take on the responsibility of asking tough questions of staff, stakeholders,  special interest groups and others who come forward with a position. They also commit to moving away from their own self-interest and position to imagine what is best for the “common good” of the entire community.  As has been found in similar projects, these citizens found this experience to be profound.  It created a fundamental shift in the way they see government, their role as citizens, the opportunities created by new ways of doing public consultation and how they all relate. The following comments encapsulate feedback from forum members:

“This process has taught me how important listening can be and how imperative it is to try to understand all aspects of any given situation – this enables an educated balanced approach to a solution. It has also reminded me that reasonable people can be respectful of each other and of their differing opinions.”

“Discussions between members of the Citizens Forum were not dominated by a single voice, and agreement was reached quickly on difficult issues because the members did not have deeply held beliefs (and the rehearsed sound bites associated with those beliefs) when they arrived. That doesn't mean that they didn't have deeply held values … simply that they were more open to finding solutions to problems instead of assigning blame.”

``This has been a real awakening for me and I hope to stay involved in my city in the future.”                                                

The fundamental challenge, however, is political legitimation of the process both on the part of the public and the sponsor who still must live with the political consequences of the recommendation. While the forum members were very proud of their work, the recommendations evoked pushback from vocal members of the public, who had paid little or no attention to the process as it transpired and stuck with their original positions. Similarly, the initial response from Councillors divided along urban and suburban lines. However, in the end, some councillors contend that the fact of this process created the space for Council to come to a unanimous recommendation on this issue.


Hamilton is one of a number of Ontario cities amalgamated in the  late 1990s. Hamilton-Wentworth had been a two-tier government with an upper level regional government and six municipalities, the largest of which was Hamilton. Like many large, historic regions, Hamilton-Wentworth had seen substantial growth and expansion of the urban boundary into the suburbs and a deteriorating core. Formerly the steel capital of Canada, the typical urban challenges were exacerbated by the rationalization of manufacturing on a global scale, the commensurate loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, abandoned brownfields and increased levels of poverty. An expectation of amalgamation was that wealth from the suburbs would shore up the `hole` in the doughnut.

At the time of amalgamation, with the resistance and emotional charge it sparked, the decision was made to exercise the option of area rating some municipal services: service levels were markedly different for fire, recreation and transit and 65% of the region`s land mass is rural.  Ten years later, the fire service had changed substantively, recreation fees and access had been harmonized and the growing need for a more rational organization of transit has become evident. A staff report presented in the fall of 2009 recommended an urban-rural split, as directed by Council, for these services, recognizing that transit makes no sense in the low density rural communities and small communities still have volunteer firefighters. It also recommended the addition of area rating for streetlights and sidewalks, given there were few to none of either in rural Hamilton. The tax impact would result in tax increases to property tax in the former suburbs that ranged from 1 to 14%. With 80% of the population living in the former city of Hamilton, their tax decrease would be 1-4%. Public outrage was expressed in the community papers of the former suburbs and by their councillors. A motion was brought forward by City Council that recommended that a citizens` forum be struck “to hear from the citizens of Hamilton prior to making a decision on how to approach area rating for property taxes”.  Some urban councillors, perceiving this as a tactic to delay the decision, opposed the motion. The motion passed. TL Dobbie and Associates were awarded the contract to do this work.

Citizens` Forums and Public Engagement

Citizens’ Forums or Assemblies are an innovative way of providing an opportunity for people from the often silent majority to engage in a public policy discussion and consultation in a meaningful, constructive way. Unlike town hall meetings or the typical public consultation that brings out entrenched, organized interests or positions, ordinary, unaffiliated citizens are given an opportunity to learn about an issue and generate an informed opinion by finding the common ground with their fellow citizens and working on behalf of all of them.  In Canada, we have seen them struck to make recommendations for provincial electoral reform (Ontario and BC), strategic visioning (Edmonton), in the area of health care to develop principles to guide decision-making on funding the cost of catastrophic illness (Ontario), to name a few. 

According to Involve UK, nine principles should shape a public engagement process. The process should 1)  be transparent, 2) make a difference, 3) have integrity, 4) be tailored to circumstance, 5) involve the right numbers and types of people, 6) treat participants with respect, 7) give priority to participants’ discussion, 8) be reviewed and evaluated to improve practice, and 9) participants should be kept informed. In other words, the design of the consultation must suit the local need in a very specific way although the way in which authentic dialogue is enabled is a necessary condition of good process.

Hamilton`s Citizens` Forum on Area Rating of Property Tax

Members of this forum were selected from a pool of respondents who responded to a survey sent to a sample of residents randomly generated from the tax roll. Twenty people were recruited who represented the demographic profile of the city in terms of gender, age, and whether they were born inside or outside of Canada. Forum members had higher levels of education than is found in the community and more of them were affluent.  Two were tenants and the balance homeowners. Of the twenty recruited, fifteen represented wards and five were recruited to represent five geographic clusters of wards.

The forum members came to a recommendation based on consensus after approximately 30 hours of meetings that took place over five weeks. Consensus was not mandated, they were given the option of preparing a “minority” position. Education included presentations and dialogue with city staff, a 3.5 hour bus tour and two public meetings during which they engaged in conversation with members of the public and heard their deputations. Reading material was sent out between the meetings and they have estimated their “homework” time at 10-15 hours.  Attendance was excellent: of the seventeen who made up the final Forum, twelve attended all the meetings, with the rest missing between one and three meetings.

This process was overseen by an independent Steering Committee composed of citizens of stellar reputations and managed by the consultants. They provided no input into deliberations, other than to answer or facilitate the answering of questions.  Some steering committee members monitored the meetings. 

On day one, the forum members were briefed on the Council approved Terms of Reference, pertinent excerpts from the Municipal Act and other background materials. A city staff presentation on Area Rating was simplified and reworked so the information was presented neutrally by one of the consultants. Some forum members expressed disappointment in the narrow scope of their mandate (i.e. to only look at the services that could be area rated versus looking at city services) but, at the same time, took their responsibility very seriously and remained focused. One participant summed up the feeling of the group when he said at the end of the first meeting:  “I came here today thinking I had all the answers.  Now, all I have is questions!”

Two public meetings provided a chance to hear the lived experience of members of the public as relates to issues like fire, recreation and transit. Forum members also had to contend with the fact that the public who attended these meetings are angry with their current level of taxation and what many see as a reduction in the quality of service since amalgamation. In response to arguments that more public consultation was needed, some forum members suggested that while the public input was useful, it was repetitive.

In a subsequent meeting, the forum had a chance to address some of what they heard from the public about fire and response times to the Deputy Chief and Assistant Deputy Fire Chief. They questioned staff on how the “seamless service” they had heard about on the bus tour could be reconciled with the stories they heard from various residents.  All of this lively discussion and interaction informed the forum’s final decisions, as did their time with the Transit manager and answers staff provided through email to their various questions.

Here is one forum member`s comment about her educational journey,

“I’ve learned so much about my taxes, and how they are distributed throughout our city. I am actually quite impressed with how open and accommodating city staff were in response to the Forum’s constant grilling of questions. Not one piece of information was left out or ‘sugar coated’. Facts, numbers, figures… any document was available to us, and I think we made a very well informed recommendation”.

The Results

Two months after receiving the forum`s recommendation, Hamilton City Council voted unanimously on a solution that was neither that recommended neither by city staff or the Citizens` Forum.  However, at a reception held for the forum members a few days prior to this vote, the mayor and a number of councillors praised their work as having laid a foundation, even given them the `moral authority` to have a different type of discussion about this tax issue, a ``frank” discussion that allowed them to broker a political solution that they could all live with.

One of the project deliverables was “public education”. While a website was created, and an Issue Book distributed that encouraged grassroots conversations and submission of a recommendation, there was little interest in the issue. The project team issued media releases and wrote two opinion pieces that were picked up, but otherwise the local media paid scant attention. There were other quite compelling stories unfolding in Hamilton that consumed public interest.  The most significant opportunity for public education and public buy-in to the process was afforded by a local talk radio host. He invited the consultant and either a representative of the steering committee or forum on his show regularly as the process unfolded.  When the recommendations were presented to Council, the major media (radio and the daily newspaper) was quite supportive of the process. However, local community newspapers focussed their reporting on the impact of the change to property tax bills and made no editorial comment on the process. The local television station had paid no attention until the report was presented to council.  It remains unclear whether the public is better educated either about their taxes or this public engagement method.

In terms of Council’s satisfaction with this approach to citizen engagement, a survey was sent to city councillors and the mayor after they made their decision. Of sixteen surveyed, seven responded. Councillors were asked to think back to their expectations at the time the process was approved. The response showed mixed expectations of the six on council at this time, which reflects a split in the vote that approved the process.  However, in the end, four of seven found the process “very valuable”, one was “neutral” on it and the seventh, “not valuable at all”. That councillor had started with high expectations and was disappointed.

There were two different interpretations of how well the forum functioned, with one group quite positive (“provided a neutral (everyday Hamiltonian) perspective which tended to take the politics out of the equation to some extent) and two councillors critical of the members’  “expertise” and direct experience with the challenges, particularly those of farmers.  One councillor thought that the terms of reference should have been approved by Council (in fact, they were). Asked whether, in hindsight, this was the right issue for the process, five said yes, one said no and one didn’t know.

On the question of whether they would convene a citizens’ forum again, five of seven councillors would. With respect to the type of issues that would be best suited to this method of public engagement, answers included “issues of various concern to urban and suburban voters”, “complex issues where Councillors are at loggerheads; issues that need study and common sense opinions from citizens”, policy review and bus routes. One councillor stated that their local community councils represented “the best forum for citizen engagement” and further that “specific areas of expertise could be identified in the community to come together as a task force, which would have a beginning and end time to make recommendations”.


New ways of engaging citizens and rebuilding the trust between citizens and politicians is the subject of much conversation and experimentation in Canada and around the world.  Typically these processes engage a critical mass of citizens, to maximize both input and buy-in.  Engaging a small representative group is a less common approach. The view from Hamilton is that this was one of those symbolic activities that demonstrates where the municipal public service needs to go. While we have been almost entirely focused on performance measurement and value for money, important activities for good management of public money, we must remember that we are the public service. In order to get to where we are truly serving the needs of the community, in all its diversity, we need to more broadly engage the public in all we do. That is why we are here.   

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