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Communities on the Move: Putting power in the hands of the people

Cochrane's hybrid boards geared to more public engagement, better decision-making on recreation, economic development projects

Any municipal election candidate can run on a promise to return "power to the people,” noted Peter Politis, but in Cochrane, the local government has adopted a new board system that aims to do just that.

In January, the town introduced new hybrid boards, which function as an extension of council, giving some decision-making powers to the citizens who sit on them.

It's an effort, said Politis, to remove a lot of the bureaucracy that can sometimes stymie decisions at the council table.

“There's a lot of good work that comes out of there, but you're really limited,” said Politis, the town's mayor.

“You're never really going to get into that ‘explore and discover’ mindset until you have a collective group making decisions, as opposed to individuals in silos.”

Helming Cochrane's council between 2010 and 2018, Politis was returned to the leader's seat in October for a third term.

During his time out of the spotlight, he remained an active volunteer with local boards and committees, but he and other volunteers became discouraged at the slow pace of decision-making on some issues.

In some cases, after council failed to adopt committee recommendations, volunteers were left feeling dejected, questioning the effort they put into volunteering.

“I would never have been able to recognize that up front,” Politis said. “It's good sometimes to step back and just watch things unfold.”

Joining him in his frustration, he said, were volunteers from younger demographics — Gen Z, Millennials — who wanted a quicker payoff for their hard work.

Not wanting to lose the momentum of the town's vibrant volunteer community, “it became pretty clear that some evolution was required,” Politis said.

So Cochrane's council tapped into a provision within the Municipal Act that enables it to delegate some powers to a group Politis described as a cross between an advisory committee and a board of directors.

The idea, Politis said, is to enable citizens who are receiving the service to make decisions about the service.

In the case of recreation, for example, the volunteer groups that are organizing festivals and events throughout the year can have a representative on the seven-member hybrid recreation board.

Any money that's generated through events they've organized goes back into a special trust. The board determines how it can be reinvested into the community. And they can do this without returning to council for permission to proceed at every step through the process.

By giving the volunteers agency in how their hard work is rewarded, Politis said, council is hopeful of providing continued motivation for residents to get involved in the community.

“It's a really unique approach,” he said.

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A second hybrid board, following the same principles, has been set up for economic development initiatives.

That board is composed of 12 people, including local representatives from funding agencies including FedNor, the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

“They now sit at the table with the commercial representatives that cover the whole sector of our economy, and they're developing the ideas together, from the ground up,” Politis said.

“They're building relationships; they're committing to each other.”

This approach enables all board members to stay up to date on projects the town's working on. Because the funding agents are familiar with the project, they can more easily offer guidance on getting applications submitted and approved.

Politis believes this new setup will directly result in more economic development initiatives seeing fruition.

Among the pending projects is the construction of grain silos at the town's multimodal project, a plan that's been on the books for several years, but has been held back by lack of funding.

Work is also ongoing on an agricultural initiative that will create a one-kilometre contiguous land base on either side of Highway 11 that aims to attract more farming to the area.

The town is also embarking on a "really aggressive” housing initiative that involves building a 400-lot subdivision, which Politis said could be instrumental in attracting new workers to the ongoing mining development activity in the area.

These and other ideas will all be addressed by the hybrid economic development board.

Politis emphasized that the power delegated to these hybrid boards isn't given “willy nilly.”

Boards have to develop a solid plan, in conjunction with the appropriate department and the town's CAO, which is brought to council for approval.

Once that approval is given, the boards are free to make decisions within that structure. If they're stuck on making a decision about something, then the issue returns to council for mediation and a final discussion.

Council passed a resolution allowing the hybrid boards just before Christmas, and the bylaw came into effect on January 10. Politis said the boards’ first meetings were to get underway in early February.

“What we’re doing here with this extension, is we’re giving the people an opportunity to be actually engaged — and meaningfully engaged — in decisions that are being made about their affairs,” Politis said, “and we think we’ve put together a real good, responsible mechanism to allow that to happen.”