POLITICAL ACUMEN TOOLKIT:
RESIDENTS & RATEPAYERS
Many administrators and councillors have remarked how much easier their jobs would be, “if only we didn’t have all these residents complaining all the time.” However, residents and ratepayers form the very foundation of our role in local government. Without them, municipal governance and administration would be unnecessary. Indeed, all municipal positions are driven by how many people require the delivery of municipal services. Whether you are a municipality with one employee in rural Saskatchewan or the City of Toronto with almost 36,000 employees, municipal staff are there to serve the ratepayers and residents of that municipality.
While staff, including the CAO, are not directly accountable to residents or ratepayers, we all know how critical a municipality’s citizens are to the success of an administration. Ignore ratepayers and Council is sure to hear about it; address concerns in a timely manner and you are likely to have the backing of your community during difficult situations. While an individual or group may not be speaking on behalf of the majority of your population, it is important to be sensitive to their issues. The quicker you address a situation, the less likely you are to require Council intervention.
Staying in-the-know about your community by being involved in community activities, keeping your ear to the ground, ensuring your eyes are alert to what is going on, and having a nose for recent developments, will help keep your political antennae tuned to community needs and demands. The following section offers best practices in political acumen as it relates to residents and ratepayers. Topics include:
Ratepayer and Resident Associations
Many resident and ratepayer associations are created as a result of a difference of opinion regarding key issues, taxation, or financial accountability between those who govern and those who reside. If the direction a municipality is heading is fundamentally different from the values and beliefs of a significant group of residents in the community, a ratepayer’s association may be formed as an advocacy group to ensure those values and beliefs are maintained on a fiscal level within the community.
Remember, a municipality’s Administration and Council are there to serve its residents. If your municipality has a newly-formed ratepayer’s association, it may be a sign that you are heading in the wrong direction with the priorities set by your Council or the initiatives undertaken by Administration. That said, many ratepayer associations are longstanding and can provide valuable feedback to the municipal decision-making process.
Ratepayer associations should be taken seriously. It is crucial that the CAO and other senior staff take the time to understand the values and concerns of the association and listen to what they have to offer to the policymaking process. It is equally important to take note of their requests and do what you can to achieve their goals without jeopardizing the strategic direction of the municipality. If a ratepayer association’s goals are met, they may no longer have a cause to pursue and are more likely to lose steam or even disappear. CAOs who can address these situations positively and successfully without Council intervention show a high level of political acuity.
When a ratepayer or resident association of any kind is created and begins to advance an agenda that is different from what Council has adopted, always try to obtain a listing of who is part of the committee. It may be that they represent only a few people and are trying to create chaos within the community. Conversely, they may have a membership of hundreds of people, making their issues and concerns more legitimate. CAO’s can be thrust into very awkward situations if they make incorrect assumptions. Be sure to do your homework and get to know who these groups represent before assessing how best to respond to their issues and concerns. If you find yourself in an adversarial position with the association, always keep to the facts, remain impartial, and treat their representatives fairly and respectfully. Remember, body language speaks volumes, even if you do not say much.
Best Practice: Always do your homework with ratepayer and resident associations. Find out who they represent and what their agenda is before deciding how to respond to their concerns.
Remember: Always act reasonably and respectfully toward representatives from ratepayer and resident associations, even if discussions become antagonistic.
One of the many challenging aspects of being a municipal administrator is finding yourself at odds with citizens who are unable to pay their property taxes or pay for essential municipal services such as water, sewer, or power. This is particularly true in small municipalities where you are likely to know those who are unable to pay, personally.
Most provincial or territorial legislation will have content in their municipal acts that provide procedures on what to do when landowners have fallen behind on the payment of their property taxes. Everything from describing different ways to recover taxes in arrears, to the seizure of goods, up to and including the sale of the property and what to do with the proceeds are prescribed. Once a property falls within the tax recovery provisions, the municipality is obligated to follow the procedures contained in the legislation regardless of the reason for the situation.
In many cases, individuals have fallen upon hard times and can no longer afford to cover all of their debts. Unfortunately, paying property taxes is not something any of us can avoid. Individuals can declare bankruptcy and absolve themselves from certain obligations; however, property taxes do not fit into this category. Hence the often-heard expression, “the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes.”
Does the CAO or municipality have any discretion in this regard? In many jurisdictions, the answer is “yes.” If a ratepayer is able to provide the municipality with a plan on how they will pay any outstanding amounts in full, Administration can exercise some discretion before the delinquent ratepayer is put on the tax recovery list and subject to the tax recovery process. However, this needs to be closely monitored to ensure the payment plan does not also fall into arrears. Administrations who are seen as doing as much as possible to help the ratepayer are likely to be perceived positively by Council and, more importantly, by the community. Tax recovery should be viewed as a last resort, and all ratepayers should be treated fairly, equitably, and with compassion when it comes to being in arrears on their property taxes.
Best Practice: Putting ratepayers into a tax recovery process is a serious decision. Not only can it make them feel embarrassed or ashamed, it also has significant consequences and can result in them losing their property. When possible, give them the benefit of the doubt and always treat them with dignity, respect and compassion. If you do exercise discretion, be certain the ratepayer understands the consequences if they do not fulfill their obligations.
In many jurisdictions across Canada, the legislation governing municipalities requires formal hearings on issues of public importance. Public hearings offer residents and other stakeholders the opportunity to express their views on a given subject directly to Council. In many cases, these hearings are a requirement of the land use planning provisions in the legislation.
It is impossible for any Administration or Council to anticipate every impact of a new rule or law. Hearings allow Council to learn of any unintended consequences that were not previously contemplated and provides them with an opportunity to present the public with different options. Before Council renders a decision on the matter, it is the responsibility of Administration to assess the input provided by the public and offer recommendation to Council on how to move forward to achieve the best possible outcome. This presents an opportunity for the CAO to provide a solution to the issue at hand, and in doing so, make Council look good.
Often the key to a successful hearing is an appropriate level of public engagement in advance of the proceeding itself. For more information on public engagement, please see that section of the toolkit.
Addressing Differences of Opinion
Sometimes there are differences of opinion expressed at a hearing. In these situations, Administration needs to ensure that they have listened to resident concerns carefully and have taken the time to respond to the concerns raised. One of the most common rebuttals heard from individuals who do not support a given course of action is “you did not listen to what I had to say.” Always remember to indicate to people that while you certainly heard what they had to say (and repeat to them what you heard), you have determined a different course of action is more appropriate for specific reasons (and list what those reasons are).
If residents know they have been listened to and treated with respect, they are more likely to accept the decision and move on. Even those who continue to disagree with the outcome will be more likely to respect Council and Administration because they were heard. Remember that public hearings are for residents to express their point of view. Be sure to allow them the opportunity to do so, even if the amount of time it takes is longer than anticipated.
Best Practice: When responding to the public at a hearing, use the following approach: Demonstrate that you heard what they had to say (repeat to them what you heard) + Explain why you have chosen a different course of action (list the reasons).
Bringing in Support
Some public hearings are very complicated and can take days to complete. When this happens, you may wish to consider bringing in a third party to assist with the process. For example, having a professional recording clerk or legal advisor(s) present to address any procedural issues or unanticipated events can help alleviate strain on your municipal staff. While this will cost the ratepayers, you will be further ahead if the actions of your municipality are questioned or a judicial review is undertaken.
Appeal boards are quasi-judicial in nature and include, for example, sub-division appeal boards, assessment review boards, environmental protection appeal boards, weed control appeal boards, and more. Each of these boards is governed by the legislation of a municipality’s province or territory. Their fundamental purpose is to offer each resident their “day in court” to refute an order or ruling imposed by the bureaucracy of the municipality.
When selecting board members for an appeal, it is important to confirm that those appointed do not have a pecuniary interest in the case being heard. Appeals should begin by asking those present if they have any objections to the board members who will be hearing the case. If there are no objections, you can proceed. If objections are raised, the board should take a recess and, in closed session, decide if the objection is legitimate. If it is, then excuse the member being objected to and continue. If there are not enough Board Members to continue, adjourn until another time. If the Board decides the objection is not legitimate, you can proceed with the hearing with the understanding that the decision may be appealed to the courts due to a procedural error.
When working with residents and ratepayers, it is always necessary to explain the municipality’s decision. Whether it is why option “a” was chosen over option “b” in the implementation of a new service or the result of an appeal, taking the time to provide a solid description of the rationale behind a decision helps the public to accept it and move on. This becomes particularly important with unpopular outcomes. As with public hearings, if you can offer fair and just reasoning for the result, it becomes harder to argue, and negativity toward the decision can be deflected. Providing the right amount of information to achieve this is an indication of political acumen on the part of the CAO and senior management.
Best Practice: When responding to the public always demonstrate that you heard what they had to say (repeat to them what you heard), and explain why you have chosen a different course of action (list the reasons).
“Public participation,” “stakeholder engagement,” “social license to operate,” “community relations,” or any iteration thereof, all refer to one thing, your ability to work with those who are impacted by a decision to achieve buy-in and avoid opposition. Today, the public play a more significant role than ever in the decision-making process of organizations. Whether you are an oil and gas company trying to build a facility or pipeline, or a municipality trying to create a new subdivision or host the Olympics, you need to engage your stakeholders as part of the decision-making process. Social license to operate, specifically public support for your organization or an initiative (or in some cases merely a lack of disapproval), is vital to implementing any project or change successfully. Indeed, this was the foundation of the democratic system our governance structure is built upon, and citizens, particularly marginalized groups, are now beginning to reclaim their voice in the process.
In relation to public participation, political acumen is knowing when to engage residents and ratepayers and to what level. Engagement can range from one-way educational or informational transactions to a collaborative effort between residents, Administration and Council, or even the full transference of decision-making power to the public (e.g. through a plebiscite). As described in the Administration and Council section of this Toolkit, citizen committees have been a particularly effective means of public engagement in situations where public opinion can meaningfully influence the outcome of the decision, or there is a greater impact to the public from the decision-making process.
Hiring a public engagement specialist (contract or full-time) or training a staff member on public participation tools and techniques can help you wade the waters of when and how to consult the public. Developing a Public Participation Policy that outlines your municipality’s standard for engaging stakeholders is also advisable as lets residents and ratepayers know what to expect. The International Association of Public Participation – IAP2 is recognized internationally by municipalities and other organizations as setting the standard for public engagement and provides training on the subject matter. They have also developed a Public Participation Spectrum that many municipalities use to guide their engagement efforts.
No matter what strategy is undertaken for public engagement, it is always important to let residents know where and how their feedback was used. Doing this shows the public that their input adds meaningful value to the decision-making process and that it is not a waste of their time or simply a matter of checking boxes. Releasing a summary of public comments that describes how they influenced the final report can be an excellent tool for closing the loop on your public participation process.
Best Practice: Be mindful in any form of public consultation to give voice to all affected stakeholders across different demographic groups. Only listening to those who speak the loudest or who want to control the process will provide you with an unrealistic picture of public opinion and could cause residents to question a decision if it is based on these results.
- Administration & Council
- Residents & Ratepayers
- Provincial & Federal