A young man who believes so passionately in civic engagement that he has forgone months of potential earnings and has accumulated about $10,000 in debt still believes in the value of ordinary peoples’ opinions. Norman Kearney says the recent publicity around his compensation dispute with Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr is a “red herring.” For Kearney the important thing is the continuation of the participatory budgeting process that he brought to Hamilton’s ward two, and which will culminate in an open vote later this month on which of some 56 community projects will get green-lighted. The money for the community projects will come from a special area rating fund that gives individual ward councillors in the older city wards the ability to recommend ward-specific capital spending projects. The funds were given to the wards rather than a small property tax decrease that would have occurred as a result of area rating.

A mini election will be held in Ward 2 later this month to decide which projects actually go forward. Kearney, who hopes to become an economics professor, has long been an advocate of grass roots community engagement. He had studied exercises in participatory budgeting that had been undertaken successfully in other cities around the world, and wanted to see if it could work in Hamilton. Early last year, supported by his employer Reeves Financial, Norman went to work organizing existing Ward 2 community groups groups into assemblies. These included 6 already active neighbourhood associations in Ward two and other community groups and individuals who all bought into the process. In August the neighbourhood associations petitioned Ward 2 Clr. Jason Farr that the citizens of Ward two be given a meaningful chance to vote on how this year’s area rating fund would be divvied up. In the end it was decided to put $1 Million of the $1.6 Million up for allocation through participatory budgeting. In announcing the new engagement process last summer Farr said “I campaigned on citizen engagement,” adding that he was concerned about the low voter turnout in elections. The engagement process moved smoothly until September of 2012, when Kearney left to take up studies at the London School of Economics.

The plan had been for Norman to maintain a long-distance involvement in the Ward 2 project through email and Skype, but as it turned out the London School of Economics did not live up to his expectations and Norman returned to Hamilton after an absence of two months. “ Things seemed to have cooled off,” Norman said, but he plunged back into the work, organizing community meetings and engaging an ever growing number of volunteers. By this time the arrangement with Reeves had expired. Norman, working pro bono, was dipping into his personal savings while organizing the participatory budgeting process. Broke, Norman asked Farr if he could receive at least a minimum wage stipend out of a $50,000 budget that had been approved to administer the program. “He (Farr) said, if you need to take other work—no hard feelings,” said Norman. After some further discussion it was agreed that he would receive $8,500 for five months work. That payment is pending as further delays were incurred over a number of administrative matters.

In the meantime Norman has run up a $10,000 line of credit to sustain himself. Despite the setbacks, Norman has continued to move the participatory budget process forward. The community groups, through a series of meetings came up with a wish-list of 56 projects— many of them modest in terms of cost—things like cleaning up back alleys, installing more benches for pedestrians, parking areas for bicycles and scooters, crosswalks and the like. The process culminated last month with a bus tour of Ward two where the 8 assemblies got to demonstrate their projects and appeal for support. “I think that bus trip was the highlight of my life,”Norman says, so much energy, so much ownership taken.” Later this month polling stations will be set up around the ward to allow residents to vote on the various projects. “We are also going to experiment with mobile polls in vans moving slowly down the street while volunteers knock on doors to get out the vote,” Norman enthuses.

Of his dealings with Farr, Norman is philosophical. “ I did feel for a while I was being strong-armed out my own process,” he said. Asked if he thinks the councillor may have become threatened by the amount of citizen mobilization that had taken place in his ward, Kearney says, “It may have been threatening because people are empowered…but the process would lose credibility if it was seen as simply a profile-raising tool for the councillor.” Norman, who insists he has no personal political ambitions will be leaving Hamilton again next year to take post graduate studies in Ottawa, but he says the whole participatory budgeting experiment is a success that will endure. “The process is undamaged—it is something that can’t be taken down so easily.”

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