WINDSOR STAR: Anne Jarvis: ‘We’re on to something’

City councillors Rino Bortolin, left, and Chris Holt where joined by political panelists Pat Papadeas, Don Merrifield Jr., Kieran McKenzie, right, to discuss City of Windsor budget during CJAM Rose City Politics broadcast at Phog Lounge January 14, 2015. About 50 area residents joined in the discussion and broadcast at the University Street West watering hole. Paul Synnott was also part of the panel and broadcast. "This is our roadmap" said Holt about city's lengthy budget. (NICK BRANCACCIO/The Windsor Star) City councillors Rino Bortolin, left, and Chris Holt where joined by political panelists Pat Papadeas, Don Merrifield Jr., Kieran McKenzie, right, to discuss City of Windsor budget during CJAM Rose City Politics broadcast at Phog Lounge January 14, 2015. About 50 area residents joined in the discussion and broadcast at the University Street West watering hole. Paul Synnott was also part of the panel and broadcast. "This is our roadmap" said Holt about city's lengthy budget. (NICK BRANCACCIO/The Windsor Star)

Anne Jarvis

It was called a “monumental evening,” and that’s no exaggeration. The “Multi-Platform City of Windsor Budget Town Hall,” on CJAM’s Rose City Politics, wasn’t exactly a wild night out. But it was the most unique budget meeting I’ve ever heard of.

What stands out about Windsor’s 2015 budget? Not the tax freeze, though that’s commendable and I’ll take it.

What stands out is the way people called, texted, tweeted and Facebooked their questions and  comments at the show, the way they debated with two councillors over beer at a popular bar after the broadcast. It’s the give and take and ensuing compromise at the official budget meeting four days later, resulting in decisions that don’t increase taxes but preserve threatened services that people want. And it’s the continuing talk about how to engage the public more.

Broadcast live at the Phog Lounge four days before the official budget meeting, the show featured councillors Chris Holt and Rino Bortolin and urged listeners to tell them how they want their money spent. People were invited to call or text, follow on Twitter or Facebook or come over and join them. Councillors Bill Marra and Irek Kusmierczyk joined via social media.

“The whole idea is for us to listen to you and interact with you,” Holt told the audience.

And people did. They talked about the arts, the pedestrian underpass at the river, parking rates, closing the community centre at Water World, removing the rink at Adie Knox, finding a place to play other sports like roller derby and lacrosse, whether or not to raise taxes and youth flight.

The event continued for almost two hours after the show ended, with Holt and Bortolin leaving their places on the stage and mingling with the 40 or 50 people there to continue the conversation.

“You really have to do it again,” people are saying.

Voter turnout in the last election was a miserable and frightening 37.5 per cent, the lowest in more than a decade and a half, despite a three-way race for mayor and four open council seats. It should be the mission of Mayor Drew Dilkens and every one of the 10 councillors to improve that. And this, more than Internet voting, is the way to do it: engage people.

It’s not that people aren’t interested. I talk to enough people to know that they know more than we think.

“I had thousands and thousands of great conversations about what’s happening across the city,” said Kieran McKenzie, a Rose City Politics host and assistant to Windsor West MP Brian Masse, referring to his Ward 9 campaign last fall.

The problem is that council isn’t very accessible. The budget is an example. It’s the most important thing council does. It affects your life every day, as Bortolin told the audience. It determines whether your children can take swimming lessons and whether your street is plowed. And it spends your money.

But the budget is four tomes totalling more than 800 pages. It’s probably more than the combined weight of my twins at birth. It was made public Jan. 5. Council voted on it Jan. 19. Bortolin, who owns a restaurant, was scrambling to read it in his kitchen and late at night. And if you wanted to address council, you had to register ahead of time, show up a 3 p.m. – Vacation day! – then wait up to six hours to speak.

That’s not accessible.

“We really wanted deeper input on it, and there didn’t seem to be many avenues,” said Holt.

But a live, interactive town hall opened the budget to everyone – grass roots, youth – not just the heads of organizations.

“What I loved,” said Marra, “was sitting listening on my iPad, chiming in through Facebook.”

“The interaction we got tells me we’re on to something,” McKenzie said. “If you give them the opportunity to interact, they will.”

Council has learned a critical lesson, said Marra.

“There are other ways to reach out to people,” he said.

The more people council hears from, the more informed its decisions will be. And the more people are heard, the more invested they will be.

Now, councillors are talking about introducing the budget, including a summary by treasurer Onorio Colucci so people can actually understand it, in October or November, so the public has a month for its say. And council should “fully exploit social media,” says Marra.

“Imagine if we were to consult with…everybody…before this night (when council votes on the budget) so a lot of these things are not just hours of delegates coming through and getting upset about something; they’re part of the process,” said Bortolin.

Yes, imagine.

“We own the process,” Marra said. “The onus is on us to extend the opportunities for input to as many ways as possible.”

Yes, it is.

Read this article online at the waybackmachine HERE because it’s not available on The Windsor Star archives for some reason