Conflict and snags dog Hamilton citizen budget experiment

The experiment to allow Ward 2 residents to vote on how to spend $1 million of city money has hit snags, amid rising tensions between the local councillor and the citizen-run committee tasked with overseeing the project.

Coun. Jason Farr reviewing Ward 2 participatory budgeting process

Norman Kearney, founder of Participatory Budgeting Hamilton, holds a volunteer training meeting in downtown Hamlton. Four months later, city staff say there isn't enough money to fund all the projects. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

The experiment to allow Ward 2 residents to vote on how to spend $1 million of city money has hit major snags, amid rising tensions between the local councillor and the citizen-run committee tasked with overseeing the project.

In late August, for the first time in the lower-city ward, residents went to the polls to vote on how to use $1 million from the councillor’s discretionary budget.

Now Coun. Jason Farr is reviewing the process for 2014 after a rocky first year of the voting, which saw confusion over where residents were supposed to go to the polls.

In addition, some of the winning projects might have to be scaled down, revised or even scrapped based upon feedback from city staff about their feasibility.

“I have an obligation in 2014 to the 40,000 people in Ward 2 to make certain how it went in 2013," said Farr.

"As we said from day one in 2012, we said, ‘It’s the first year. It’s not going to be perfect. We’re going to have to tweak as we go. We’re going to make sure it get better.' At the end, obviously, I wanted to make sure I do my due diligence as an elected official. It’s $1 million.”

The headaches of the program’s first year raise the possibility that the will of the voters won’t be reflected in the projects that get funded.

Resident Joanna Millions submitted two successful proposals — one for a safer, more accessible set of stairs and ramp at the Victoria Street South access to the Escarpment Rail Trail, and the other 10 solar-powered trash compactors for Hamilton parks.

Coun. Jason Farr says he's revamping his ward's participatory budgeting process after the first year of voting. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

But in a meeting in November, she learned that the access could cost much more than its allotted $100,000. Millions, an electrical engineer, said city staff also told her were they were only prepared to purchase one or two of the trash compactors.

“I was very disappointed into city staff’s reaction to a lot of things,” she said. “A lot of them forgot that they’re supposed to work with [residents] to improve the city.”

But the money, which comes from Farr's area-rating capital budget, cannot in most cases go toward projects that would have an impact on the city’s operating budget, he said. That potentially rules out new programs or infrastructure that would require a lot of maintenance by city staff. 

“Changing the way we collect garbage, particularly heavy garbage, because that’s what those compactors compress… all of that is additional operating cost,” Farr said. 

Millions expected working with staff would mean minor changes to the projects. But she wonders why projects were allowed on the ballot — even after the participatory budgeting team had city staff vet each proposal's feasibility — only to be iced after the vote.

“All of this information should have come ahead of time,” Millions said.

Growing tensions

These revelations come amid growing tension between Farr and members of Participatory Budgeting Ward 2’s (PBW2) organizing team.

Norman Kearney, the project’s founder and interim facilitator, accused Farr of overstepping his bounds by conducting a review of the process on his own. The PBW2 office should conduct the review independently, he said.

In an email dated Dec. 20, Farr told Kearney that his office had been doing its own review, and the results would be ready “shortly.”

When the review is complete, “Ww will be taking an approach to the 2014 PBW2 initiative in a manner that differs from your method of delivery,” Farr wrote.

“Through an open public meeting and with the assistance of all our neighbourhood associations, we will devise this structure of implementation.”

But Kearney says the terms of reference that were developed to govern how participatory budgeting is run. These rules give the office the authority to review and administer the process. Farr helped develop and approved those rules, Kearney said.

'This is my job'

“If the councillor chooses to depart from his prior commitments and to unilaterally dictate the terms on how residents participate…then this will signal the end of genuine participatory budgeting in Ward 2.”

Farr told CBC Hamilton that he “signed nothing” and only committed to “Norman’s terms of reference” for the initial 2013 vote. But he invited the PBW2 officials to conduct their own consultations and report back. 

“This is my job,” said Farr of his review. “This is $1 million of taxpayers' money. It’s something that’s never been done before in downtown — it’s been done twice before in Ward 1 — and it’s important for the Ward 2 councillor, who’s inevitably responsible for this initiative.”

“My interest is to continue the initiative at $1 million and maintain it in a positive way, because this thing is all good news," he added. "It’s an all-good-news story.

"I’m not the kind of guy to get caught up in some sort of drama.”


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