Public hearings at Calgary city council will look different in 2023, with changes made to streamline the process and reduce barriers for those wanting to speak.
The changes were outlined in a briefing note delivered to the city’s Executive Committee on Wednesday. It was an update to work that began in March 2021 to create a user-friendly public hearing system.
Public hearings are conducted at Calgary city council for planning matters, bylaws, budgets and other major projects. Citizens can also speak to items during Standing Policy Committee meetings.
Some of the changes have already been in place in a post-pandemic world – like the hybrid, online/in-person participation model. That was initially implemented to allow for public participation when buildings were closed to the public during Covid. It will remain as a part of the public hearing process.
One of the biggest changes participating Calgarians will see, according to City Clerk Kate Martin, is public hearings will have their own city council meetings. Right now, they are combined with a regular meeting of council. The second big thing is those standalone meetings will start at 9:30 a.m. on scheduled days.
Martin said public hearings are a great way to allow the public to voice their opinions on topics. To allow for more people to participate, they wanted to break down some barriers and improve user friendliness, she said.
“Combining those pieces together, this work is important so that we can create that environment that welcomes the public to present, to speak and to have their opinions and their voices heard,” Martin said.
Pulling down potential barriers
There are a variety of things the City Clerk’s office is doing to increase participation.
“One of the barriers that we heard about was the accessibility to attend public hearings,” Martin said.
Two new measures beginning in January will be reduced parking rates for public hearing participants, and transit ticket vouchers. Martin said when folks register to speak, they will be told how they can take part in those programs. If anyone attends in person at the council chamber, staff and information will also be available there to help.
They’re also putting the finishing touches on a video explainer that takes the intimidation factor away from public hearing newbs. It will go right from how to access city hall, go through security and into how the public hearing process works.
“That’s a really important piece of work that we’ve committed ourselves to, to be able to really show the public what it’s like to engage through the public hearing process,” Martin said.
Other works in progress are the public hearings information page, continued targeted advertising and an online registration portal. They’ll also make more online resources available to reduce the stress of presenting to council.
One thing that won’t move forward is childcare services. Martin said they were trying to find a space in the municipal building where this might work. That won’t go ahead as there isn’t a suitable space, she said. Things like an available kitchen or right-sized washroom facilities would require construction work – and a capital request.
Removing barriers is a good step, but more can be done: Coun. Walcott
Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said it’s going to take more than transit passes and parking to encourage participation. This, however, is a good start.
“These are barriers. They may not incent any more people to join, but if there is even one person that wasn’t coming because they couldn’t get here affordably, or they couldn’t park here affordably, at least we remove those barriers,” he said.
Walcott said there’s a lot of pressure on the public hearing process to be that conduit for engagement – particularly because it’s the legislated aspect. He said they need to increase the value of feedback outside the hearing process.
Taking barriers away will draw more, he said, but the inequity in who can participate is still so broad.
“We got to make sure we’re collecting from various sources, when we’re looking at what we value in our public hearing and our representation,” Walcott said.
That’s where Coun. Walcott said they can take the conversation to higher levels of government. He said changing the regulated requirements would help. Changing the way information is dispersed, shared, the livestream contracts and even language services. Plus, finding a way for people to engage on their own time, not necessarily in a scheduled public hearing, is important Walcott said.
Mayor Jyoti Gondek said these are steps in the right direction. They’ve heard from people they want it to be easier to engage.
“It’s not perfect yet. There’s a lot of things that we need to consider, but we’ve taken it seriously,” she said.
While the main changes will come once meetings restart in January, the remainder will be added throughout 2023.
There’s also a web page explaining the work the City Clerk’s office is doing on public hearings.