Norman Kearney's phone is "ringing off the hook."

The Mac grad and Waterdown native is gearing up for an election — preparing 10,000 ballots, training dozens of volunteers, arranging six vans to be mobile polling stations and returning calls to residents eager to find out how to cast their vote this weekend.

This is the dirty work involved in pulling off a made-in-Hamilton experiment in direct democracy, the scale of which hasn't been seen in the city in its history. 

For the first time, residents of Ward 2 will be heading to the polls to decide how to spend $1 million of taxpayers' money — choosing between 25 community-member-submitted projects that are on the ballot — as part of this weekend's participatory budgeting vote.

'This could be a defining moment in Hamilton's history, a moment when Hamiltonians took charge of their own city.' —Norman Kearney, Participatory Budgeting Hamilton

The founder of Participatory Budgeting Hamilton (PBH), Kearney, 25, sees the Ward 2 project, only one of a handful of its kind in North America, in grand terms. It has the power, he said, to bring civic decision-making back down to the grassroots level, allowing residents a direct say on how their neighbourhoods take shape.

"I think if it all goes well, this could be a defining moment in Hamilton's history, a moment when Hamiltonians took charge of their own city," said Kearney, who's set to move to Ottawa in September to pursue a master's degree in political economy at Carleton University.

This experiment goes much further toward grassroots political decision-making than the city's other participatory budget effort. In that one Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie  in 2012 established a 20-person citizens' committee to consult residents on how to allocate $1.6 million in the ward.

The funding for both participating budgeting projects comes from the wards' area rating capital re-investment reserve, a stash of money set aside for community infrastructure projects that would normally be spent at the councillor's discretion.

These initiatives, Kearney said, offer the city an opportunity to put another feather in its increasingly well-decorated cap. PBH's Facebook page has already garnered likes from users around the world, he said. And Kearney's recently been invited to speak on the topic at a fall conference in Denmark.

"If we're leading the way, that would be a bold and powerful new reputation for Hamilton."


This weekend's vote isn't exceptional solely because of its format; it also stands out in terms of who can vote and what options residents have when it comes to casting their ballots.

Ward 2 Participatory Budgeting

  • When: Saturday (9am to 9pm) and Sunday (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
  • Where: Bennetto Recreation Centre (450 Hughson St. N), Cathedral Place, (252 James St. N), YWCA (75 MacNab St .S), Corktown Park Pavillion (Forest Ave & Aurora St). Voting vans will also be driving through the streets.
  • Who: All Ward 2 residents age 14 and up, including those without permanent residency/citizenship

For more information, go to or call 905-523-4444 ext. 112.

All residents age 14 and up can vote, including those who don't have Canadian citizenship and thus aren't able to participate in run-of-the-mill municipal, provincial and federal elections. In addition, voters will have the option to cast ballots at one of four polling stations, or behind one of the six "voting vans" that will be cruising the ward — literally bringing the democratic process to people's front doors — throughout the weekend.

The aim, Kearney said, is to make the entire exercise "as inclusive as possible." He and his team, he said, have tried hard to reach out to as many community organizations as possible, especially those representing new immigrants and people who live in poverty, groups that typically face barriers to democratic participation.

Shamso Elmi, a Somali-born translator with an activist streak, joined the PBH team to convince members of her community of the merits of civic involvement.

Initially, it was a hard sell. As a result of decades of strife in their country of birth, many of the city's Somali immigrants have a deep-seated "mistrust" for "anybody who talks on behalf of the government," she said.

But to Elmi's delight, she's noticed an increasing desire among members of Ward 2's Somali community to give input into neighbourhood development projects, in part because they've seen changes they've demanded actually come to fruition. Elmi cites a soon-to-be-completed stoplight that's being installed at the intersection of John Street North and Robert — just outside an apartment complex that houses many Somali-Canadian families — as an example of an improvement the community asked for and later received.

"It's a big difference," said Elmi. "That's what they wanted to see, to make a difference, to see the beauty in the downtown area and to feel welcome."


Somali-born Shamso Elmi is a freelance translator and community advocate who has volunteered as a facilitator with Participatory Budgeting Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The shift in attitude, she said, was on vibrant display at a recent meeting in which the city, including local councillor Jason Farr, reached out to residents of Ward 2's Beasley neighbourhood to consult them on a proposed $276,000 redevelopment of McLaren Park, a hub of activity for the area's Somali families. And it's also resulted in one of the measures up for consideration on the participatory budgeting ballot — a proposal for $112,000 in seed money for a new multicultural meeting space, conceived and put forward by members of Ward 2's Somali community.

"Because of the participatory budgeting, it's given us a bit of light, saying there's a bit of money and you can decide what to do with it."

But the process, Kearney said, "hasn't been all rainbows and sunshine." He views the disconnect between residents, who come up with the proposals, and city staff, who assess the projects' feasibility, as a "potential barrier to the growth of participatory budgeting."

Community members, he said, often aren't aware of the "logistics" that govern how things get done a city hall. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, "are not used from receiving direction from residents."

A special bus trip in July, one that took a team of delegates from city hall, including Councillor Farr and several staff, on a tour of the ward to meet groups who had put forward propsals, helped to bridge the divide, Kearney noted.

"An evolution"

The participatory budgeting vote is part of a larger trend afoot towards public engagement at city hall, said Grace Biffey, vice-president of community relations with the Hamilton Community Foundation.

The charity has partnered with the city to facilitate "resident-led" neighbourhood action plans for 12 high-needs areas in Hamilton.


Voters will be asked to rank 25 resident-proposed projects that are on the ballot. (Participatory Budgeting Hamilton)

"It's an evolution over the past 10 years, and people are now feeling empowered to do that," said Biffey. "Hamilton is really on the leading edge in that area in terms of people making their neighbourhoods a better place to live."

Despite the fact he's leaving Hamilton for grad school in less than two weeks, Kearney said he will remain chair of PBH and will return to the city to attend monthly meetings. He's also looking to expand participatory budgeting to other parts of Hamilton, teaming up with Evelyn Myrie, the executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, to spread the practice beyond wards 1 and 2.

He said he hopes the turnout will exceed 7,800 — roughly the number of Ward 2 residents who voted in the 2010 municipal election — but said there are other, more important ways of measuring the event's success.

"Hopefully, we'll excite enough people that we create enough champions to carry this forward," Kearney said. "That is really the test for me."

His continued involvement will also give him the chance to put in place some nice-to-have amenities that he hopes will bring a dash of added fun to the participatory budgeting mix.

"The vision was to have things like food trucks and entertainers outside of the polling stations," he said. "Maybe we'll see some of that spontaneously happening. That's what democracy should be. It should be like a festival. It should be like a celebration every time you cast a ballot."