What future for public participation in Montreal?

Translation of the open letter that appeared in the newspaper Le Devoir, October 28, 2017:

The issue of participatory democracy deserves to be addressed during this election campaign in Montreal following the adoption of Bill 122 last June recognizing that municipalities are local governments.

In the area of urban planning, the Bill allows municipalities to evade referendum approval of zoning changes as long as they adopt alternatives that encourage public participation. Citizen participation is all the more important in this area because many interests revolve around urban projects—be they those of promoters, citizens or the entire community. In order for elected officials to mediate in an informed manner, all these interests must be heard and taken into account. What is the position of candidates regarding local democracy and citizen participation in local decisions?

To be exempt from the referendum approval procedure, a municipality will have to adopt a public participation policy. The Bill foresees that a ministerial regulation will frame the formulation of these policies, starting from a series of objectives stated in the Bill, such as the transparency of the process, the consultation upstream, complete and comprehensible information, a real capacity of the citizens to influence the outcome, the active presence of elected representatives, sufficient time, the expression of all the points of view, and the accountability of the process. The minister had set up a working group to examine these points and to guide his reflections in the preparation of his regulations. The group’s report clarifies the concepts but remains vague about the guidelines and seeks instead to give the municipalities as much room to manoeuvre as possible. It must be admitted, it is true, that municipalities vary considerably from one another and that the common denominators are not simple. The report does, however, contain several headings on which one could expect the municipalities to make commitments, for example, the objects of participation, the means of communication, the deadlines, the credibility of the processes, their accessibility to all citizens, and the impartiality of the steps. However, it does not aim at mandatory minimum content. It does not intend to impose, for example, an independent hearing for major projects, or a citizen’s right of initiative. Thus, citizens may have to rely mainly on municipalities to design their citizen participation policies. The proposed MAMOT public participation by-law should be firmer and less minimalist than the task force report recommends, to better define this controversial issue. Meanwhile, the election period is an opportunity for candidates for municipal positions to clarify their intentions. All municipalities are called to define new ways of integrating public participation into their deliberations. Citizens are entitled to expect formal commitments from them.

The City of Montreal already has a public participation policy, and claims to rely on a powerful mechanism, the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM). However, Bill 122 requires Montreal to review its policy. And for good reason, because the abolition of the referendum will leave gaps and change the dynamics of recourse to the OCPM. It would therefore be necessary to define more precisely the cases that must be submitted to the OCPM. Will all cases currently subject to referendum be automatically referred to the OCPM? Or will simplified formulas be adopted for smaller projects? If so why? Beyond zoning changes, how will this policy improve the participation of citizens in changes to the Master Plan, to specific urban planning programs, to major urban projects?
 
The public participation policy of the City of Montreal dates back to 2005. It should be reviewed in the light of new knowledge concerning, in particular, citizen collaboration, upstream consultation, new rigorous framework mechanisms for public consultation, and accountability. Another major issue: the Bill indicates that Montreal’s public participation policy will concern all of its territory; to what extent will the boroughs be bound by this policy? Finally, considering that Bill 122 requires that the new draft participation policy be submitted to the OCPM, how will future elected officials actively involve the population and civil society in this exercise? More generally, to what extent are the candidates for mayor ready to commit to improve participatory democracy in Montreal?

Board of Directors of the Institute of Policy Alternatives of Montreal