Little ideas series for Burlington: Valuing Public Input

If you could change one thing make our city better, what would it be?

Welcome to “Little ideas that can make a big difference,” a video and article series aimed at getting us talking about how we can make Burlington’s neighbourhoods better for everyone.

Burlington is a great city – there are many terrific things happening in our neighbourhoods and here at City Hall. But a hallmark of great cities – and great governments – is they are always looking for ways to improve. Finding those opportunities to improve is the focus of this series.

Today’s idea: improving public influence in decision-making. [Watch video here or read article below.]

In the last election, residents made it very clear you want change in government. You asked for more input in decision-making, and you want decisions to better reflect a community vision for our city.

There are many steps we can take to improve public engagement in decision-making. I’ll discuss those in future videos and articles. But the first step is a change of attitude at City Hall to value the input we receive.

Molinaro proposal approved - Brock and ElginCity Hall does an excellent job of asking residents “what do you think?” Where there is room for improvement is incorporating what we hear in final decisions.

By way of example, let’s look at two recent development decisions, the first to allow the Molinaro on Brock highrise, the second the AMR townhouse in the Queensway neighbourhood.

In both cases, the city hosted many public meetings to ask residents their views. Many residents also stood at the delegates podium at City Hall to share their views with staff and council.

amrstoryprintIn both cases, residents overwhelmingly said they wanted these developments scaled back to better reflect the community’s vision as spelled out in the Official Plan. But those views were not reflected in the final council decision. The same situation occurred on the Queensway Drive/Glenwood School Drive development, that rezoned low and medium density lands to shy of a high density – despite residents asking for reasonable and balanced reductions in density.

That created understandable disillusionment among residents, who felt they had no impact, and further  that attending meetings and sharing their views was a waste of time.

So how can we at City Hall do better? It’s not enough to receive public input; we must allow that input to influence decisions. And that starts with a change of attitude – here’s just a few we can change:

Burlington city hall believes it needs to educate residents on development and intensification

  • I’ve heard the view expressed that the public just doesn’t get it or needs to be “educated,” especially in discussions on development and intensification. Education is, of course important. But education is two way. The better approach: our attitude must change from “the public needs to be educated” to “what can we learn from each other?”
  • I’ve heard residents dismissed as “NIMBYs” or “not in my back yard” when discussing issues in their immediate neighbourhood. But if a decision isn’t good for the people most affected by it, how can it be good for the entire community? And why is the private developer’s interest given more weight than the community’s interest?The better approach: Our attitude must change from dismissing residents as NIMBYs to giving residents most affected by a decision extra consideration. Residents are best qualified to articulate their hopes and dreams for their own community.
  • I’ve heard residents who join together to form into groups to advocate on an issue dismissed as “special interests.” This leaves residents in a no-win situation. When one individual speaks, he or she can be dismissed as speaking only for themselves. But when residents come together as a group, they are dismissed as “special interests.” We must value both individual and group feedback. The better approach: Our attitude must change from dismissing group feedback as “special interest”, to valuing the expertise from residents who form into groups. Those groups can pool resources, conduct research and provide more comprehensive feedback to council than one of them could do alone. Plus, we get a sense of the scope of interest in a topic by the size of the group.
  • Burlington City Hall - community engagementFinally, we must adopt an attitude of transparency. We’ve got to be straight with residents about what part of each decision is up for debate. For example, if there’s no willingness to reduce height on a particular development like we saw with the Brock and Elgin project, we owe it to residents to say that up front and not waste people’s time. We’ve got to be clear about what is open for change and meaningful input.

To summarize: if we can change attitudes toward public input in decision-making by committing to learning from each other, by valuing the input of residents most affected by a decision, by valuing input from groups as well as individuals, and by being straight about what’s on the table for negotiation, we can move beyond mere public “input” to actual public “influence” in decision-making.

And if we can improve public influence in decision-making, that’s a little idea that can have a big difference in making our city better for everyone. Why? Because I believe that the best decisions come from collaboration between residents and City Hall working together in the city’s best interest.

Do you have a little idea that can make a difference? Or a comment on today’s idea? I want to hear from you, so I can serve you better. Please send me an email at or phone at 905-335-7600, extension 7588.

Written by Marianne Meed Ward

I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.

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