AS WE LAUNCH into the 43rd election for the federal government, we shouldn’t forget that democracy is not just about the day we vote for who we want in power. It’s also about the ability for individuals to interact with those elected once they get voted in.
Here in Kamloops, for more than a decade, City council has made an overt effort to increase citizen engagement. There have been an increased number of budget meetings. There are neighbourhood consultations. There are often cookies and coffee at town halls.
I’ve seen the City staff out at shopping malls and home shows talking about everything from solid waste to water conservation.
Kudos to all of council for supporting the increased public engagement, and especially Coun. Arjun Singh, who has been beating this drum since the time he was first elected to council in 2005.
But one area City council has been silent on is the abysmal and inadequate council chambers. City of Kamloops council chambers are too small and too cramped. They are not adequate for the size of our city.
City of Kamloops council chambers has only 28 seats for the public.
It is routine for the public gallery to be full and overflowing. Public frequently try to sit in the media section because of lack of seating. People can’t even take large bags or backpacks into the gallery because of lack of space.
With only 28 seats, there is no way that large groups can come. I can’t recall a school group coming. It’s great that eight or 10 high school students get to be on the City’s youth council, but don’t expect entire classes of elementary or high school students to be able to come to council meetings. There just isn’t room.
There’s no way a typical Thompson Rivers University class of 40 could attend a council meeting.
It’s routine for groups to receive recognition from council for their accomplishments. A group may come because of a sporting achievement, or a volunteer achievement. But when the group is large, there is no way they can all fit into the chamber.
Nor is there room for large groups of people concerned about anything from mines, to public safety, to taxes. Some have to stand outside while their groups present.
By keeping council chambers small, in effect, City council is telling the public to stay away.
To be fair, when there is a public hearing or a budget meeting that is expected to be large, the City rents a bigger room. But not for the day-to-day meetings. Don’t expect to see groups of school students or the hospital auxiliary volunteers in council chambers any time soon.
Let’s compare the size of Kamloops chambers to other B.C. cities.
Our sister city Kelowna has 133 public seats in its chambers. Meanwhile, Prince George, our other interior sister city, has 100 public seats.
Victoria’s council chambers can accommodate up to 170. They typically have 50 set out for regular meetings.
Nanaimo has 200 seats for the public in their council chambers. Even small Salmon Arm, which is only 20 per cent of the size of Kamloops, has 63 public seats in its gallery.
Building a new council chamber is not on the radar of this current Kamloops council. Nor previous councils either. It takes a lot of political will and backbone to stand up to the public and ask to spend money.
But as we grapple with strengthening democracy, at every level of government, we need to remember that people’s ability to oversee, criticize and question their elected politicians is as important as voting. It’s important that council meetings are accessible to more than 28 people per week.
It’s time the Kamloops public had adequate space at City of Kamloops council meetings. It’s time Kamloops has a larger public gallery in its city hall.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.