City of Powell River’s committee of the whole was prompted to consider alternative democratic processes in conducting city business.
Resident Maureen Mason said she was appearing before the committee of the whole on November 17 because Mary Morgan, a member of the city’s community finance advisory committee, had resigned, and had written an open letter that was published on social media. Mason said the letter struck a chord with the community. She said it’s not something specific to Morgan or to Powell River.
Mason, in a letter to the committee, said Morgan referred to a lack of democratic process and a culture of exclusivity as reasons for her resignation from this newly formed committee.
“Democracies all over the world are struggling with the whole notion of civic involvement to the point where democracies in a number of places are starting to feel threatened,” Mason told the committee of the whole.
She said just before COVID-19 she was at a United Nations (UN) conference on democracy in Bangkok, Thailand. She said at that conference there were heads of organizations, corporations and research institutes. People from around the world shared success stories in rebuilding local democracies, according to Mason.
“It was absolutely fascinating to hear this,” said Mason.
She outlined what the UN classes as participatory democracy. She said at this level, involvement is basically an exchange of information between community and leadership. The information is taken away by people in management to be used in the decision-making process.
She then outlined what she referred to as deliberative democracy, which is to deliberate. She said it’s to slow people down and engage in conversations that are meaningful, and conversations that lead to an understanding that cuts through all of the differences.
“Understanding the difference between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy gives us an understanding to Mary’s experience on the finance committee,” said Mason. “What we know is that committees tend to break down for one of two reasons. The first one is people join a committee expecting it’s going to be collaborative, only to find the committee has been structured according to participatory democracy, and then they get frustrated and leave.
“The second one is everyone is committed to something collaborative, but it’s a question of skills. People come together with the intention to collaborate but they don’t have the skills to hold the conversation in a way that isn’t positional or divisive. What happens with that is people fall back on old habits. Old habits are positional conversation.”
Mason said experts are saying the only way to get out of some of the tough situations that are faced as a global community is through creativity and innovation. She said creativity only happens through multiple ways of thinking. Participatory models are not structured to allow for creative exchange, she added.
“Collaboration is built to create crossovers and intersection points that build creativity,” said Mason. “That’s the whole point of deliberative democracy and that’s the goal.”
Mason said it’s not the job of city council or leadership, it’s everyone’s job – it’s the job of the community. She said in recognition of that responsibility there is a non-partisan group in Powell River and the whole idea is to have the community conversations to be collaborative and creative. She said in January, a series of democracy cafés is being planned.
“The cafés are designed to start to build understanding and skills, beginning with where we are at and where we want to go,” said Mason. “What does it mean to lead in a culture of collaboration? It’s very different from leading in a culture of participation.”
She said once the skill and capacity is built for these kinds of conversations, then there is readiness for something like a citizens’ council, where people can come together around points of expertise and be part of solving critical issues that are faced.
Mason said an application has been made locally to the deliberative democracy consortium, which is an international alliance. She said they have a network that provides knowledge, experience, research and implementation support for communities such as Powell River that are at the starting point of having these kinds of conversations.
Councillor Maggie Hathaway said she would welcome it.
“Decision-making is really difficult and the more input we can get from the general public the more I would like it,” said Hathaway. “We get lots of information after the fact but not a whole lot before and that’s troublesome.”
Councillor Rob Southcott said before he sat on council, he had a desire to be involved and heard, and to have an active and meaningful part in the community. He said it’s very easy to slip into blame, dissatisfaction and judgment and a lot of attitudes that don’t carry matters forward.
Southcott said the finance advisory committee is dealing with as challenging a topic as any group of people could possibly take on.
Mason said participants need skills to participate in something like that so they know how to bring ideas forward.
“The whole point of this is it opens up a space for even the most marginalized voices to legitimately contribute to the community,” said Mason.
Councillor CaroleAnn Leishman said anything that can be done to improve democracy is welcome and she wants to be involved. She said she and Southcott had been involved in workshops on trying to bring social equity into the climate action conversation.
“It really is important to ask that question of who is not at the decision-making table – what voices are we not hearing,” said Leishman. “My colleagues and I quite often feel a little bit alone in our decision-making process. Anything we can do to bring more voices in and try to collect that knowledge, I’m happy to participate in it.”
Councillor Cindy Elliott said she would like to see conversations from city government become more accessible to the community.
Councillor Jim Palm said the finance advisory committee is a diverse group with different perspectives.
“Whenever you step in the public realm and create a committee like that, it is not an easy task,” said Palm. “I don’t think resigning from the committee because you don’t like the way it is going at the outset, and not giving it time, is really in the best interests of the committee.”
Committee chair George Doubt said he thinks a lot can be done to improve public participation. He said he understands the differences to the two approaches to democracy Mason outlined. He said he has a number of conversations with the public frequently. He said the more people who can put their voices forward the better.