Budget is one of the most important functions of any government, be it federal, provincial or municipal.
Political pressures and realities force governments at the provincial and federal level to keep the budget processes as transparent as possible, as they have broader responsibilities to the electorate and they are accountable to constituents in more than one ways.
At the municipal level, however, budget processes can be a little less uniform since every municipal unit has the latitude to decide on its own way of managing its monies under their bylaws and procedures.
In Ponoka, town councillors consider the budget for the town usually behind closed doors.
There are, however, other municipalities that have started to allow residents a chance to observe the deliberations. Some, such as the City of Lacombe, have been holding an open house to allow for public feedback while others keep with the same practice of deciding on the budget outside the view of the public.
For Ponoka, the reason for keeping with the old ways is less for the goal of being secretive per se, than maintaining a chance to get through the process in a more relaxed atmosphere, according to town CAO Brad Watson.
He feels there is some safety and informality for councillors when discussing the budget. “Why would we run the risk of having them (councillors) say something that is being recorded that all of a sudden is in the paper that they embarrass themselves on,” he asked in response to a question on the topic.
The reason deliberations are in a closed session in Ponoka is to allow staff and councillors to speak freely without fear of saying the wrong thing, explained Watson.
This gives them a chance to have a level of comfort compared to a formal meeting, according to the CAO.
Council is entitled to make the decision whether to open up deliberations to the public, he added.
Are there benefits to open budget deliberations?
Norma MacQuarrie, City of Lacombe CAO, said they made budget deliberations open to the public last year and response was favourable. “We’ve had very good feedback on that. It was well attended.”
“I felt it’s really important that that conversation occur publicly so people understand that this is what’s required to maintain service levels,” she explained.
The city sets an open house after budget meetings to engage residents to give people a chance to talk to councillors about their thoughts. Having open budget deliberations gives residents a chance to consider what was discussed and then prepare for the open house, MacQuarrie believes.
“I think people appreciate the opportunity to talk to their councillors and administration one-on-one or in a small group setting,” she said.
Other budget related events, such as those when external agencies that the city deals with present their budgets to council are also open to the public. MacQuarrie feels this provides information to city residents about different businesses administration deals with.
There may have been some trepidation over opening deliberations to the public but MacQuarrie said there was much support from councillors for the decision. “Everyone saw the benefit of keeping the public informed and hearing information.”
“Truly, if there is a perceived covertness where you’re trying to be covert and secretive, then people become suspect,” she added.
The job of municipalities is to provide a public service and MacQuarrie suggested the city does not feel the need to discuss items in-camera; these sessions are reserved for legal, land or labour issues, but even in those matters, decisions can only be taken in open sessions. She said she is pleased with their current budget process and feels there may be some additions next year.
Committee of the whole meetings are also open to the public, as in the Town of Rimbey but Ponoka’s committee of the whole meetings are behind closed doors. No decisions are made at these meetings and MacQuarrie said if they need to go to an in camera session they will do so. She does not think finances fall under the umbrella of in camera discussion.
Mayor Rick Bonnett did not realize other municipalities had open deliberations but feels the idea should be investigated. “It’s definitely a concept that can be looked at in the future.”
He does feel council as a whole should consider the merits of the idea. Bonnett would like to speak with Lacombe’s mayor Steve Christie to learn their process and see how the idea came about.
For now, he expects budget deliberations to remain the same as there is not enough time to research the idea. Budget discussions are scheduled for Nov. 28 and 29.