Finding your way through City Hall (Local Motion excerpt)

I’ve spent the last year working on a book with co-editors Alana Wilcox and Christina Palassio at Coach House Press.  The book is called “Local Motion: The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto” and is being released on November 16. (launch party details)

I’m excited about the timing of the release (just post-election) because the book aims to shift the political dialogue away from elected officials, and re-focus it on the other 2.5 million people who live in the city. People like you.

Local Motion is a “How To” guide for those who want to make the city a better place, with fourteen essays that explore different angles of civic engagement.  One of my favorite parts of the book is an illustration that Marlena Zuber drew to accompany a short essay I wrote called “Finding Your Way Through City Hall”.  It’s a concise five paragraph piece highlighting the main points of intersection for citizens to engage at City Hall.

More than ever, citizens need to be learning about City Hall – how it works, who does what, and where you fit in. Here’s an excerpt from the book, and hope to see you at the launch party!

Excerpt from Local Motion:

click on image for full size • illustration by Marlena Zuber

Finding Your Way Through City Hall

City Hall can be a confusing place.  But it belongs to all of us, and it’s important to know how it works and to feel comfortable walking through it’s corridors.  City Hall is where decisions are made that affect our streets, our parks and our services.  Here is a brief overview of how these decisions are made, and how you can participate and make sure that your voice is heard.

Staff Reports

City councillors make all the final decisions at City Hall, but most of the research, planning and writing leading up to votes at council is done by city staff. All initiatives at the City begin with a staff report, which can be triggered by a direct request from council or as a result of an existing plan like the Bike Plan or the Environment Plan. Staff reports include background information on the issue under discussion and, often, a recommendation from staff. Sometimes staff will consult with community experts or stakeholders while drafting a report. In some ways this is the best opportunity to win a battle at City Hall. Influencing a staff report means you might win the fight before it even starts. [Of course, to be able to influence a staff report, you have to know it’s being drafted, which means staying in close contact with allies on staff.] Remember: it’s much easier to go to city hall to support a staff recommendation than to oppose one.

Standing Committee & Community Council

Before a staff report goes to City Council, it goes to a smaller committee of councillors. It can either go to a Community Council meeting (comprised of local councillors from a region of the city) or one of the City’s seven standing committees, such as the Planning and Transportation Committee, which deal with specific areas of interest. The Community Councils and Standing Committees provide the most substantial opportunity for citizens to be heard at city hall: at these meetings, any resident of the city can speak for five minutes  about any issue. The presentation is called a ‘deputation,’ and it’s your chance to express your opinion in front of councillors, city staff and the media. If you’re planning to make a deputation at a committee meeting, it’s a good idea to bring out lots of your supporters to fill the room. But only select a handful of people to speak, and be sure that they’re each presenting different perspectives on the same issue, and relating them back to a consistent core message.

Public Consultation

Substantial plans for new bylaws or development plans will often trigger a public consultation process, which is organized by city staff. These events are designed to present a recommendation (or a list of options) to the public and solicit feedback from residents. Unlike the committee meetings, residents do not get five minutes to speak, and politicians don’t tend to attend these events, so in some ways you have less voice here than you would at committee. On the other hand, deputants are sometimes completely ignored by councillors at committee, whereas city staff often do a better job of listening and incorporating all the voices into the next version of their report.

City Council

City Council is comprised of forty-four councillors and a mayor. They make all the final decisions, and can send reports back to staff, back to committee, or back to further public consultations if they choose. Unlike Community Council or Standing Committee meetings, residents are not able to make public deputations at City Council. But you can still get your message across visually, by wearing colourful T-shirts, buttons or hats that will identify you as a group. Signs are not permitted, and neither is clapping. However, if you can mobilize a critical mass of people, and encourage selective use of short bursts of applause, the speaker will bend the rules a bit for you. Politicians like applause, so having a large group in the council chamber can help push undecided councillors off the fence and onto your side of the issue.

6 responses to “Finding your way through City Hall (Local Motion excerpt)

  1. I am looking forward to your book. I am a small city mayor on the coast of south carolina. I have a passion for civic engagement and collaboration and am fortunate to say both have been instrumental in helping us weather the financial storm. Between our twice a month formal meetings, we hold a public work session. Council sits around a large table in our conference room and anyone from the public who brings substance to the table is invited to join the conversation. My one rule is that all conversations remain civil. We do not vote on issues during these sessions, rather we educate our selves and the public to issues that will soon come before council.

    Also, I just released a book about collaboration. A collaboration between myself, a eight year old and a retired artist, we published The Pink Dolphin which had the intent of demonstrating the benefits of working together. If you are interested you can learn about the book at

    You may also want to look at some of the blogs on I have not learned how to market them so most comments come to my normal email address so you will not see the public reaction to my efforts to create and maintain the civil conversation.
    Looking forward to your book.

    Best Wishes and good luck with your book.

    Billy Keyserling
    Mayor, Beaufort, S.C.

  2. Mez,
    looking forward to your book launch and a fellow journalist Karolyn Coorsh and I are planning to attend. But at the beginning of your post you say it is Nov. 14 but the link says Nov. 16 (Tues). So you may want to correct the date so there’s no confusion.

  3. Pingback: REVISED: Finding your way through City Hall | Mez Dispenser

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  5. Pingback: “I’ve got no quarrel with that” • Would the real John Parker please stand up? | Mez Dispenser

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