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County Citizens’ Assembly: Democratic innovation in action

Jonathan Rose

Jonathan Rose

Amidst the many festivals and summer events in the County is a novel democratic experiment under way in Picton.  While many may not yet know about it, for a couple dozen County residents, it has been an opportunity to engage in a meaningful way about an issue that has been simmering for years.

Like many municipalities in Ontario, amalgamation in the 1990s was extremely disruptive to local governance in Prince Edward County.  In one seismic shift, council was reduced significantly changing the way wards reflected urban and rural areas and historical communities that go back to the United Empire Loyalists.  The dilemmas of municipal representation still have not been solved and the County wrestles with questions like how should we elect our councillors and how many should we have?

Traditional ways of answering these questions would be to appoint an expert to make recommendations, or for councillors themselves to decide the issue.  The Council of Prince Edward County took a bold approach:  why not let a randomly chosen sample of its own citizens determine what should be the ideal size of council?  From this was born the Prince Edward County Citizens’ Assembly.

In empowering this body, it became the first municipality to use a citizens’ assembly to resolve a simple, yet historically divisive issue.   In May, 5000 letters were sent randomly to residents of the County inviting them to participate in a crash course on the fundamentals of municipal government, demographics and representation in the County.

Over 350 citizens replied, volunteering to give up three Saturdays to learn, deliberate and discuss an issue on which most had not given substantive thought.   From this group, 12 men and 12 women were selected representing each of the County’s 10 wards and a broad cross section of ages and occupations.  New residents as well as long-time residents were selected and, when chosen, more than a few said they felt like they ‘won the lottery’.
Why would citizens commit themselves to such an esoteric issue, on weekends, indoors, in the summertime, in one of the most beautiful parts of Ontario?  They did so because like many citizens, they have an appetite for politics.  Not the politics they see on television of scandals and self interest, but politics of thoughtful deliberation and real problem solving.  In short, they want an opportunity to play a meaningful role in their civic life.

There are many who would say that ‘average citizens’ are not up to the task of complex policy making.  The practice of the Ontario and BC Citizens’ Assemblies suggest otherwise.  In a proper deliberative setting, citizens are open-minded, a quick study and possess a wealth of shared, collective knowledge.

Over the past two weekends, the members have heard from experts and sitting councilors; they have consulted their friends, neighbours and co-workers to take the pulse of the community. What’s more, they have been careful to think from the perspective of County residents and balance them with their own emerging collective wisdom. Toiling away in the venerable Picton Town Hall, they have spent a considerable amount of time prioritizing what values matter most to them in determining the size of council.  Like most deliberative exercises, this is a values-led one which means that the final recommendation will be a product of their values.

It is rare that public engagement is substantive. Too often it is seen as window dressing on a policy that has already been determined.  Predictably, this has the effect of further entrenching the cynicism that citizens feel toward political elites and reinforcing that they are on the outside looking in.

Citizens’ assemblies, like the one in Prince Edward County, are providing a new tool for municipal governments to resolve issues around which there is no easy answer or around which the elected representatives have an obvious self interest.

The Prince Edward County Council has taken an important and significant step by asking citizens to devote their time to help resolve a divisive and controversial issue.  I’m not sure what the Assembly will recommend or what council will do with its recommendation.  But whatever the outcome, the council has responded to the challenge of municipal decision-making with a bold, democratic experiment.  It has been receptive to this creative process and in doing so, acknowledges its faith in the capacity of fellow citizens.  And that alone is a big step in better policy-making.

Jonathan Rose
-Jonathan Rose teaches political studies at Queen’s University and is the Director of the Prince Edward County Citizens’ Assembly.  You can follow the work of the assembly at http://pecounty.on.ca/assembly

Filed Under: Letters and OpinionNews from Everywhere Else

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  1. Jonathan Rose says:

    Hello again Wolf
    The selection was done by me and my team using past practices of civic lotteries. You will be able to read more in the final report which will go to Council on September 24.

  2. Mark says:

    They have decided on 10 councillors a reduction from 15.

  3. Wolf Braun says:

    Thx for your reply Jonathon. Who all was involved with the selecting? Just curious. 🙂

  4. Hello Wolf
    We used a random number generator to determine the recipients of the letter which were distributed by ward in proportion to its population. You can see the distribution of letters and the number of members per ward on the website here: http://www.pecounty.on.ca/pdf/WardBreakdown_002.pdf

    From that, as you mention, we received 350 responses.
    We controlled for gender (meaning we wanted gender equality) but otherwise the 24 members were randomly selected within each ward.

  5. Wolf Braun says:

    It would be interesting to better understand the selection process that was used to make up the citizen’s panel. Going from 350 to 24 was done how?

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