Local government public engagement

Municipalities and regional districts may (and sometimes must) engage with citizens in a variety of informal and formal ways on various matters. Informal engagement includes open houses and advisory bodies, while formal engagement includes legislatively-required local government consent or elector approval.

Locally elected officials are charged with making decisions that affect the daily lives of residents, families, the business community and many others. Public participation in local decision-making is an important aspect of the local government system in B.C. Citizens can become engaged and involved in local government decision-making through a number of informal and formal processes.

On this page:

Informal citizen engagement

Local governments may involve citizens informally in decisions they make by:

  • Collecting community and regional opinions
  • Accepting petitions
  • Holding community open houses or public information-sharing sessions
  • Establishing advisory bodies

These informal communication opportunities assist municipal councils and regional district boards to better understand citizens’ views or perceptions about a specific matter or bylaw. They also enable local decision-makers to engage with specific interests such as the business community or the non-profit sector. They may also serve as a way of first introducing a proposed initiative--such as building a new recreation centre--to the community.

Non-binding opinion polls

At any time, local governments may initiate a process to understand community opinions on issues and needs using the powers in the Community Charter and the Local Government Act. This can be done by voting or any other process that the municipal council or regional district board considers appropriate (including social media and online community discussion boards). The results of these opinion gathering processes are not binding on the council or board, and are a useful indicator of whether or not there is broad support for local government initiatives.

Sometimes, obtaining community opinion may appear similar to the formal assent voting process (often referred to as a referendum). Members of the public need to contact the local government if they are unsure if a community opinion poll is in fact required assent voting (for example, the municipality is seeking approval of the electors to authorize long-term borrowing).

If a regional district is initiating a process to understand elector opinion on a question that affects the regional district, the legislation specifies that the board must seek the opinion of the electors of the entire regional district (not just of a portion of it).

Petitions to municipal council or regional district board

Residents are able to submit informal petitions to a municipal council or regional district board to bring attention to matters of interest in the community. These types of petitions are considered 'informational' and are not the same as formal petitions to establish municipal local area services or regional district service establishing or loan authorization bylaws which have specific legislative requirements.

The Community Charter specifies that the full name and residential address of each petitioner must be included on informal petitions to municipal council. The legislation does not specify requirements for informal petitions to a regional district board, and there may be rules established in policy therefore it is best to check with the regional district corporate officer before initiation an informal petition.

A petition is deemed to be received by council or a board when it is given to the local government corporate officer. There is no requirement for a local government to take action if a petition is received; however, an informal petition can be a useful tool to bring a local matter to the council or board's attention.

Community open houses

Community open houses or public information sessions provide an opportunity for citizens to seek clarification on a proposed project, bylaw or other matter and to express their opinions for consideration by elected officials.

The feedback received at public information sessions may assist the local government to change a proposal if it appears the public will not support one or more aspects of it. The feedback may also help the local government to identify where there are gaps in information that need to be filled before a more formal elector approval process is conducted - for example, in relation to proposed borrowing to construct a new firehall in the community.

Advisory bodies

Local governments may establish advisory bodies as a means to engage community members or specific sectors on proposed projects, policy decisions or new initiatives.

Membership on advisory bodies is generally a combination of municipal council or regional district board members and members of the public or specific sectors usually appointed based on their particular expertise.

The legislation specifies that 'committees' must include local government elected officials among its members; however, local governments can also establish advisory bodies with no elected officials as members. For example, a “think tank” of high tech business leaders to advise it on economic development opportunities, or a First Nations advisory group as a step to reconciliation with its neighbours.

Where a local government establishes a 'committee' it can choose between a standing committee (for ongoing matters) or a select committee (for ad-hoc matters). Standing committees are established by the mayor or chair, while select committees are established by the council or board. The legislation specifies the number of committee members that must be council or board members. Committees are often tasked with considering various policy options, evaluating the options and making recommendations to the council or board

Formal local government consent and elector approval

Certain decisions and actions require formal local government consent or elector approval under the Community Charter and Local Government Act before a local government may proceed with making and implementing a decision.

Generally, issues that require local government consent or elector approval are matters that will significantly impact the community, such as:

There are several forms of local government consent and elector approval. The circumstances when each process can be used is outlined in legislation.

Assent voting

Assent voting, (formerly referendum) may be used by a local government for anything that requires approval or assent of the electors, such as municipal long-term borrowing and boundary extensions. It is also an option for proposals such as establishing a service in a regional district or establishing a local area service in a municipality. In some cases, assent voting is the only permitted form of approval.

Alternative approval process

Like assent voting, the alternative approval process may be used by a local government for anything that requires approval of the electors. It can also be used as a form of participating area approval for regional district loan authorization bylaws, and, in specific circumstances, it may be used as a form of participating area approval for regional district services.

Petitions for services

Petitions may be used as the basis for establishing regional district services and authorizing long-term borrowing in electoral areas where consent on behalf of an electoral area participant is used. Petitions may also be used to establish or change a business improvement area or local area service in municipalities.

Learn more about:

Participating municipal, Treaty First Nation and electoral area consent

Consent on behalf of a participating municipal, Treaty First Nation (if applicable) or electoral area may be used to establish or amend a regional district service or loan authorization bylaw in specific circumstances. Learn more about consent on behalf of a:

Choosing a form of approval or consent

When there is a choice between forms of elector approval and consent, local governments must decide how best to obtain approval in their communities. In making that decision, local governments are advised to consider various factors before deciding on the appropriate approval or consent method for a particular project or initiative, including: history; public expectations; scale; cost; accessibility; and timing.

Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing staff are available to provide public engagement guidance.

The alternative approval process guide provides information on considerations for choosing between the alternative approval process or assent voting.