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Where are the young voices at City Hall?

By Mike Farwell

Like many of you, I spent considerable time this past month following budget deliberations in the City of Kitchener. In the end, with a rate increase of 1.39 per cent approved by council, it’s difficult to argue Mayor Carl Zehr’s assessment that this was “an extremely good budget.”

But something continues to nag at me.

During one particularly long public consultation session, I was in the gallery with dozens of others listening to one delegate after another passionately appealing to council on some aspect of the budget.

It became clear that council had heard many of these arguments before because a short time after the delegations began, the evening took on a combative tone, prompting the 20-something man sitting next to me to lean over and whisper, “When is somebody going to talk to me about a vision?”

Those whispered words rang louder than anything else in council chambers that night, and they continue to resonate with me some weeks later.

Phrases like “knowledge-based economy” and “creative class” are thrown around frequently in our city.

The people that fall into these categories are just like the man who sat next to me in council chambers that night. He’s the kind of person you could have taken to the corner of King and Victoria streets a decade ago, where you could have explained the goals of the Economic Development Investment Fund.

His mind would have filled in the university campuses, condominium developments and adaptive reuse efforts now visible for all to see.

Today, you can explain to him the plan for a light rail transit system and he’ll understand how it changes the way he’ll move around this city in ways that he appreciates, even if he doesn’t use the system himself.

He’s also part of the fastest- growing demographic in our city. According to Statistics Canada, the largest group of people in our city is those aged 20 to 29.

This group, at 33,575 strong, has also seen its numbers swell by more than 10 per cent since 2006, when it was only the third-largest demographic represented in our city. In short, it’s a group that simply cannot be ignored.

Sadly, on this particular night at City Hall, it was this group that was both under-represented and largely ignored.

Whether the “twenty-somethings” were under-represented because they’re not as engaged as they ought to be or because they feel council’s attention is being diverted elsewhere is a chicken-and-egg discussion that’s open to debate.

But one thing you can be certain of is that this group wants to know where you’re taking it over the next 10 years, not just the next 10 months.

In the context of a city budget, every resident should understand how their tax dollars are being spent. But itemizing for us where the money is going is not the same as telling us what it’s going to do.

There’s an opportunity during budget deliberations to share a vision with this group that so craves it. And as the largest group in our city today, the way forward for us comes with them in tow.

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Regular Kitchener Post columnist Mike Farwell is a broadcaster, emcee and advocate. Follow him on twitter @farwell_WR.

One Response to “Where are the young voices at City Hall?”

  1. jameshowe says:

    A lot of interesting and provocative thoughts here Mike.

    Have you read the City of Kitchener’s Strategic Plan? If so, do you consider the plan for a healthy Kitchener to be a vision?

    Personally, I don’t see the budget process as normally being about vision but about implementing vision. It’s the more the operational side of bringing the vision to life.

    As such it’s not likely the best opportunity to engage young adults though as with other consultative opportunities, their voices and other voices not often heard at city hall are desirable.

    You may be interested to learn that to help that happen in the future a Youth Forum is being organized to get grade 10 students to see how they can make a difference by being engaged. It is roughly modeled after a Youth Forum that I learned the City of Ottawa held. The forum is a collaborative effort by Compass Kitchener, the Rotary Club of Kitchener, Resurrection High School and city staff. This year will be a pilot project with some civics classes at Resurrection. In the future, I’m hoping it’ll be open to all grade 10 students or possibly all high school students / youth.

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