At the beginning of the current term Hamilton Council adopted an area rating plan that was intended to smooth out the differences in tax rates paid between urban and suburban property taxpayers. As part of that agreement inner city wards were granted approximately one million dollars a year—the money to be used to address infrastructure inequalities. In the 4 years since the plan was introduced ward councillors have tried various methods of consultation with constituents to determine how the money should be spent. In ward 1 and 2 Councillors McHattie and Farr wave experimented with a concept called Participatory Budgeting(PB)—a process that has been adopted internationally, where ordinary citizens get to vote directly on how a portion of the municipal budget should be spent. In ward 2 Jason Farr introduced PB last year with mixed results. The process met with widespread community support, but was marred somewhat when Farr and community activist Norman Kearney who introduced the concept to Ward 2, and had done considerable grass-roots organization, clashed over methods and compensation. Kearney withdrew from the process.
This year PB was reintroduced in Ward 2 with new staff. Some Ward two residents expressed concern, however when a postcard was distributed in the ward inviting them to vote on how this year’s allocation should be spent. The invitation which reached 22,000 homes and cost about $5,000 to print and distribute, carried a picture of Farr and the words “finding provided through councillor Jason Farr’s Ward 2 Area Rating Capital reserves.” One resident who brought a card to the Bay Observer said the card made it looked like the money was the gift of the councillor, and not part of a transparent process. Asked about the propriety of wording the card as it was and the picture, Farr told the Bay Observer, “The photo was never vetted through me personally. The PB process is carried out by a facilitator… chosen by representatives from all 6 neighbourhood associations in ward 2 and myself (seven votes). The only suggestion I passed along at the start of the process was to include in any correspondence the source of the funding. In previous correspondence, you will see in small print something to the effect: Funding provided by the Ward 2 Councillors Area Rating Capital Reinvestment Reserve.”
There were also some glitches in Ward 1 where Councillor Brian McHattie introduced his version of Participatory Budgeting last year. PB purists says it is not really participatory budgeting unless constituents have a binding say in how the money is spent. A Participatory Budgeting organizer in New York wrote McHattie asking that he stop calling his process Participatory Budgeting, writing: “It seems that your process is strictly advisory, however, and that it will not open up spending decisions to all
ward residents. ..We hope that you will change the name (e.g. “budget advisory committee”), so as not to confuse people. ..Even better, perhaps you could adjust the process so that ordinary residents
will have direct decision-making power.”