EDITORIAL – Sometimes, as ratepayers, we feel our hands are tied. We cast our votes and hope that those we put in control of our municipalities, and our tax dollars, were the right choices. With the casting of our votes, we hand over the future of our community to those with the most popular votes. No matter who wins those council seats, there will always be someone dissatisfied with the workings of the council. Our frustrations can be multiplied when attempts to reach out for help are met with comments like, “You voted for them, vote for someone else next time“.
So how do you determine if your concern is legitimate and, if it is what do you do about it?
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Step One; Clarify Your Issues
In order to address the problem you will need to be very clear. If you can’t precisely describe what you have an issue with in one sentence, you are going to have a difficult time conveying your concern to those you will address. If you find there are multiple issues, you will need to separate each one individually and follow the steps to resolving them one at a time. This can be a difficult task if you have concerns about a large number of unrelated topics.
An example of an issue that needs clarification would be the concern that “my municipality wastes money and we are not seeing services we pay for in our taxes“. In order to clarify this, you need to ask yourself, “How do they waste money?” and “what services are we not seeing?”. This step simply takes your statement and converts it to the response you will get when you present your problem to any official. If you feel the money is misspent in many areas, you will need to list each area and research them individually.
Stop The Rumours; Whenever there is wide spread discontent among taxpayers in any given municipality, along with the facts and truth you will see rumours, misinformation and assumptions. Not only can rumours and false claims be damaging to innocent parties, they can undermine your efforts to prove your concerns are legitimate. Question everything. Ask for the details, verify the facts. Do not play a part in spreading unconfirmed rumours.
Step Two; Open the Lines of Communication
Before you consider filing complaints or other formal avenues, talk to your council members, and the municipal administrator. Express your concern as clearly as you are able. Be civil. Don’t open your conversation with accusations, do so with questions. Instead of saying “you waste money”, ask why money was spent on the expenses you feel where too high. If you feel ratepayers are being denied services, detail specific cases and ask for an explanation. Keep notes because much of what they say, even if it doesn’t address your concern, may be valuable to you if you need to move on to the next steps.
Step Three; Educate Yourself Further
If the first two steps does not give you a satisfactory resolution or explanation, you will need to do more research before you should take the problem “up the ladder” and consider filing formal complaints.
Attend council meetings; These meetings are open to the public and anyone is welcome to observe regular council meetings without notice. If you want to know what is going on “behind the scenes”, this should be your priority.
Talk to other ratepayers; As much as you need to open lines of communications with your council members, you also need to be talking to fellow ratepayers. Find out how they feel about your concerns or if they have additional concerns of their own. Do your fellow ratepayers share your concerns? If so, are they willing to help you in your attempts to right what may be wrong?
You have a clear statement of the problem, and you know what questions will be asked of you, your next step is to answer those questions. In order to do that, you will need to do some research. Taking the first question, “how do they waste money?”, you must first look at the financial records and be able to specify examples where you feel money is wasted. Municipal financial statements are publicly available and many Saskatchewan Municipalities post them on their web sites for the public to easily access. If your municipality does not have them posted, you can request a copy from the municipal office. You may also need to obtain further documents. Budgets, past years for comparisons, committee minutes, council minutes, by-laws and other documents may need to be read to thoroughly investigate the problem. Most of these documents can be obtained by making a simple request, though a fee may apply, however some of the documents you need may require a request through The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Be prepared to find out that some documents cannot be released to the public for privacy or other reasons.
The operations of your council are governed by provincial legislation. Each municipality also has the power to enact by-laws and policies specific to their community. In addition to copies of by-laws and documents available through your municipal office, you should also familiarize yourself with any provincial acts that may apply to your situation, such as the The Municipalities Act, the The Rural Municipal Administrators Act for RM’s, or the The Urban Municipal Administrators Act in the case of urban municipalities. Depending what topics your complaint will involve, there may be other legislation that effects the actions of council. You can view more provincial legislation on the Government of Saskatchewan’s web site.
Why so much research? In order to critique how your council spends that money, you need to ensure you’ve covered all your bases and understand how the decisions they make are effected by legislation as well as their own by-laws and policies. If you feel that purchase of goods and services are not monitored sufficiently, knowing the municipalities polices on such purchases will tell you what guidelines they use. Maybe the real problem will turn out to be not that they are breaching any policies, but that the policies themselves need to be reviewed. If you think they wasted money buying a pickup truck for the works department because paid too much for it, in your opinion, find out what the purchasing policy is for those types of purchases. Maybe your issue you should be addressing is that the council currently compares what is offered for sale and selects one that they feel is appropriate and you feel they should be required to request a minimum number of estimates and that request be widely publicized to ensure a competitive price can be obtained for the purchase.
Step Four; Give Your Council & Administration The Chance to Address The Issue
So you’ve clarified how you think the council wastes money and armed yourself with the knowledge to be able to effectively communicate, it’s time to file a complaint, right? Not yet.
If, after taking the time to have one on one conversations, your concern is not alleviated, you can email or send a letter to the council and request it be addressed at the next council meeting, or request to be on the agenda as a Delegation, where you can speak to them in person. If you feel your council members and/or administration are unapproachable individually, then skip straight to a letter or delegation to council.
Important note: When writing a letter, email or speaking to the council as a delegate, it’s important you request a formal written response. While some council’s may voluntarily provide a formal written response to your concern, you may find all you get is “Your concern is duly noted“. Be clear the action you expect them to take in response to your communication.
Step Five; Taking Your Concern “Over Their Heads”
You’ve clarified your concern, you’ve taken it to the council and administration and you still aren’t satisfied with the results. What can you you now?
First off, get it out of your head that you can successfully complain to SARM (Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities) or SUMA (Saskatchewan Urban Municipal Association).
SARM and SUMA do not represent the ratepayers, they represent the local governments.
SARM – The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities is the independent association that represents rural municipal government in Saskatchewan and is the principal advocate in representing them before senior governments. The Association takes direction from its members and forms its policy accordingly. Source: SARM web site https://sarm.ca/about-sarm
SUMA – Recognized since 1906 as the collective voice of Saskatchewan municipalities, SUMA represents the interests of municipal governments on policy and program matters within provincial jurisdiction that bear directly on them. Source: SUMA web site https://suma.org/about
The next logical step is one that has only recently been made available to ratepayers with complaints against their municipal governments, the Provincial Ombudsman.
When filing a complaint to the provincial Ombudsman’s office, you will find that the minimum they require is that you have a clear explanation of your complaint, that you have taken steps to have it resolved with your council, and that you can provide specifics of those attempts, as well as supporting documents that may back up your complaint.
Keep in mind that, should the Ombudsman’s office choose to investigate your complaint, they can only provide recommendations. Their decisions are not binding on municipal councils.
Before You Take The Next Steps
The next steps are not something one individual ratepayer can accomplish alone. If your municipality does not have one already, you would be wise to form a Ratepayers Association. If the problems within your municipality are so large that these, much more serious and consequential steps are being considered, you will need to be organized and show you have the support of other ratepayers who stand to be affected by the potential consequences.
Informal meetings of select groups of ratepayers are a good start to gather information and discuss options, however they do not reflect the entire population and should not be considered conclusive representation of the opinions of the the ratepayers as a whole.
Step Six; Last Resorts – Petitions – Public Meetings – Referendums – Financial and Management Audits
If, after having tried all the options in the first five steps, you still have no satisfactory solution, there are further steps you can take. Use extreme caution when choosing to take these further steps because most will come at a price, literally. These last resort options can be costly for the municipality and, in turn, all of it’s ratepayers.
Petitions can be used to achieve a number of results, such as a request to the council on a public meeting or a referendum regarding a particular issue. Citizens may petition their council to hold a public meeting of municipal voters to discuss any municipal matter.
Minimum number of petitioners required:
- In cities, voters representing at least five per cent of the population
- In resort villages, voters representing at least eight per cent of the voters
- In other municipalities, whichever is greater:
- 20 voters, or
- voters representing at least five per cent of the population
Referendums are designed to deal with specific issues, such as implementation of a by-law or other proposed public measure.
“A referendum is the submission of a proposed public measure which will be outlined within a municipal bylaw or a resolution to a vote of municipal electors. A referendum may be initiated by council, or citizens may petition council to place a municipal matter before the voters. The Act refers to a non-binding referendum as a plebiscite, whereas a referendum binds the municipal council to a specific course of action and therefore the rules regarding petitions for a referendum are explicitly set out in the Act.” Source: Government of Saskatchewan Government Relations
Minimum number of petitioners required:
- In cities, voters representing at least 10 per cent of the population
- In other municipalities, whichever is greater:
- 25 voters, or
- voters representing at least 15 per cent of the population
Financial and Management Audits
A petition to request a financial or management audit is an extremely serious step to be considering and will require a petition signed showing the support of at least one-third of the population of the municipality. It’s important to note that means 1/3 of the population, not necessarily the eligible voters. If the population of your municipality is 1,400 people, you are required to have the signatures of at least 467 eligible voters for a petition for an audit to be successful.
The cost of these audits can be very expensive and must be paid for by the municipality. Ratepayers considering pursuing this option need to carefully consider whether they are willing to accept the consequences of the financial burden it may place on their municipality, and it’s potential impact on services and future taxation.
The benefit to an audit is that the resulting report becomes publicly available. The exception to this is where misconduct is identified. In this situation, the auditor will send the report to the Deputy Minister of Justice and the municipality cannot make the report public.
Financial or management audits are different from the annual financial statement audit which is intended to determine if the municipality’s financial statements are prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. In so doing, the auditor is also required by the Act to report any impropriety found during the course of the audit and report to the mayor/reeve of the municipality with a copy to the Minister. Auditors use their professional discretion in determining the materiality of any items mentioned in the management letter.
A financial audit is an audit which identifies:
- instances of fraud, theft, or other financial misappropriation;
- improper or unauthorized transactions;
- non-compliance with provincial or federal statutes;
- non-compliance with municipal bylaws.
A management audit is an audit to:
- review the performance and operations of a municipality to evaluate whether its operations are undertaken economically, efficiently and effectively;
- investigate and identify issues related to the policy, organization, operation or administration of the municipality; and
- propose appropriate solutions to any issues identified during the course of the audit.
View more detail of about Financial and Management Audits : Government of Saskatchewan Government Relations
Sources & Recommended Reading
- Tools, Guides, and Resources for Municipalities>Petitions Government of Saskatchewan Government Relations
- The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act
- The Municipalities Act
- The Rural Municipal Administrators Act
- The Urban Municipal Administrators Act
- SARM web site https://sarm.ca
- SUMA web site https://suma.org
- Council Responsibilities http://www.saskatchewan.ca/government/municipal-administration/tools-guides-and-resources/council-responsibilities
- Saskatchewan Ombudsman
- Canadian Taxpayers Federation – Municipal Ratepayer Guide: Whether a municipality has a population of 2,000 or 200,000, this guidebook will assist local taxpayers by equipping them with the necessary steps for developing an organization capable of taking on city hall and doing at the local level what the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) does at the provincial and federal levels. http://www.taxpayer.com/media/MunicipalRatepayerGuide.pdf