Inaugural e-town hall budget meeting deemed a success

Council fields questions live from the public through social media, phone and in-person.

Cycling infrastructure, why council spent $100,000 on a toilet, tax rates and how much the city spends on its assets were just a few of the budget issues Nanaimo residents had on their minds during the city’s first e-town hall budget meeting Monday.

Nanaimo residents had an opportunity to address city council with questions or comment through Facebook, Twitter, webform, phone, and in person with real time responses from politicians and city staff broadcast live on television from the Shaw Auditorium.

Council and staff responded to 24 questions in the 90-minute period. Another 16 questions and comments were in the queue when time ran out before council got down to regular business. Those questions will be addressed by council through an information report.

Philip Cooper, the city’s communications manager, said the technology developed by the city’s IT staff worked well and the format of the question-answer period was efficient and productive.

“I think if we broke it down there was an even balance of questions from the web, Twitter and Facebook,” said Cooper, who acted as the town hall’s orator. “But for our first time doing this I think we got some great results and feedback from the community. This format lends itself well to providing yet another way for residents to engage local government and be a part of the process.”

Another e-town hall meeting down the road is likely – probably for next year’s budget – and Cooper said if he would change anything it would be to establish a way to have responses posted through social media as well as verbally.

“In this case we were using, for example, Twitter, but we weren’t using social media to reply,” said Cooper. “If were were to improve [the e-town hall] we’d have that interaction occurring through the Twitter channel itself in addition to being addressed in a televised forum.”

Nanaimo is the first municipality on Vancouver Island and the second in B.C. – White Rock is the other – to host an e-town hall budget meeting for its residents.

Coun. George Anderson introduced the idea in an effort follow the city’s corporate strategic plan priority of ‘taking responsibility to be an excellent municipal government’.

“As the mayor told me, if it went well all of council would take credit and if it didn’t it was my fault,” joked Anderson. “But this gives us a clear mandate that this is one of the forms that the public wants to get involved in and engaged with so we should continue to look for opportunities to make sure it can happen again in the future, and perhaps just not on the budget but on other topics as well.”

Other questions from the public included how much green initiatives save the city annually, why commercial tax rates are higher in Nanaimo than comparable cities in B.C., and how much money senior levels of government contributed toward the $65-milion water treatment plant.

The entire e-town hall can be viewed at www.nanaimo.ca by clicking on ‘council agendas’.

Council is currently deliberating the 2013 budget, which includes property tax rate increases, before it passes into legislation May 15.