For those people who have been to Ontario’s Prince Edward Country, memories would largely revisit wineries, quaint small towns and great restaurants. Democratic innovation is not usually top of mind. This summer, however, the county was host to an important, novel experiment in civic engagement. For two dozen county residents, it was an opportunity to engage in a meaningful way about an issue that has been simmering for years.
Like many municipalities in Ontario, amalgamation in the 1990s was extremely disruptive to local governance in Prince Edward County. In one seismic shift, council was reduced significantly, changing the way wards reflected urban and rural areas and historical communities that date back to the United Empire Loyalists. The county has wrestled with questions like how should we elect our councilors and how many should we have?
Traditionally, an expert would be appointed to make recommendations, or for councilors themselves to decide the issue. The council of Prince Edward County took a bold approach: Why not let a randomly chosen sample of its own citizens determine what should be the ideal size of council? From this was born the Prince Edward County Citizens’ Assembly.
In empowering this body, it became the first municipality to use a citizens’ assembly to resolve a simple, yet historically divisive issue. Last May, 5,000 letters were sent randomly to country residents inviting them to participate in a crash course on the fundamentals of municipal government, demographics and representation. More than 350 citizens replied, volunteering to give up three Saturdays to learn, deliberate and discuss an issue on which most had not given substantive thought. From this group, 12 men and 12 women were selected, representing each of the county’s ten wards and a broad cross-section of ages and occupations.
Why would citizens commit themselves to such an esoteric issue, on weekends, indoors, in the summertime, in the heart one of the most beautiful parts of Ontario? They did so because, like many citizens, they have an appetite for politics. Not the politics they see on television of scandals and self-interest, but politics of thoughtful deliberation and real problem solving. In short, they wanted an opportunity to play a meaningful role in their civic life. There are many who would say that ‘average citizens’ are not up to the task of complex policy making. The practice of the Ontario and B.C. citizens’ assemblies suggest otherwise. In a proper deliberative setting, citizens are open-minded, a quick study and possess a wealth of shared, collective knowledge.
Over three weekends, the members heard from experts and sitting councilors; they have consulted their friends, neighbours and co-workers to take the pulse of the community. What’s more, they have been careful to think from the perspective of county residents and balance them with their own emerging collective wisdom. Toiling away in the venerable Picton town hall, they have spent a considerable amount of time prioritizing what values matter most to them in determining the size of council. Like most deliberative exercises, this is a values-led one which means that the final recommendation was a product of their values.
It is rare that public engagement is substantive. Too often it is seen as window dressing on a policy that has already been determined. Predictably, this has the effect of further entrenching the cynicism that citizens feel toward political elites and reinforcing that they are on the outside looking in. Citizens’ assemblies, like the one in Prince Edward County, are providing a new tool for municipal governments to resolve issues around which there is no easy answer or around which the elected representatives have an obvious self interest.
The Prince Edward County Council has taken an important and significant step by asking citizens to devote their time to help resolve a divisive and controversial issue. In the end, the members decided that the ideal size of council should be reduced from 15 to 10, plus a mayor. This was a product of assembly members understanding that the values of balance and fairness; effectiveness; forward thinking; greater good; openness and representation by population should shape their decision.
I’m not sure what Council will do with its recommendation. But whatever the outcome, the local government has responded to the challenge of municipal decision-making with a bold, democratic experiment. It has been receptive to this creative process and in doing so, acknowledged its faith in the capacity of fellow citizens. And that alone is a big step in better policy-making.
Jonathan Rose teaches political studies at Queen’s University and is the Director of the Prince Edward County Citizens’ Assembly. Along with Patrick Fournier, Henk van der Kolk, R. Kenneth Carty and André Blais, he is co-author of When Citizens Decide: Lessons from Citizen Assemblies on Electoral Reform.