The Municipality, and the Community

The way that we talk about ourselves can reveal a lot about us, but it can also obscure some important distinctions. What does it really mean when I say that I’m from Brighton? I might be referring to the Municipality of Brighton, which is a place with defined boundaries, but which is also a local government with defined roles and responsibilities; or I might mean that I’m from the community of Brighton, a group of people who all live within those boundaries (and others who do not, but still identify as part of our community), together with all of our businesses and clubs and schools and associations. Sometimes I might mean one or the other, but usually I mean something that combines all of that into one big, general sense of the place. If you’re like me, the word “Brighton” evokes a feeling maybe more than anything else (and hopefully a good one!).

But those distinctions between the community and the municipality can also be very important. While I mostly talk about the municipality here, explaining municipal government processes and issues, today I want to talk about the other side: the community.

WHO is Brighton?

According to the government, Brightonians are people who reside or pay taxes in Brighton. But if you scroll the Brighton Ontario Residents group on Facebook you’ll find a lot of people who are former residents, and others who live just over the boundary in Cramahe or Quinte West or Trent Hills; while these people aren’t technically Brightonians, they are a part of our community. Those who live close by might shop here, use our library, visit friends here, or come down to the park; those who don’t live nearby might be annual visitors or cottagers, or just people keeping in touch with the community from afar. Some land owners might only visit rarely, or even never, but they still contribute (at least through their taxes) to our community.

And as much as our community is almost entirely white (though increasingly less so), we have a lot of other types of diversity: in heritage, faith, sexuality, class, and perspective. If you had to describe what a Brightonian is like, I think you’d have a hard time. That’s a very good thing! My hope is that if we had to describe what a Brightonian is like, we could all describe ourselves; everyone is welcome here, and whether you’ve lived here a day or you have three generations in the graveyard, as far as I’m concerned this is your town. You’re home here.

What does a community DO?

I often go on at length about what the municipality does: it has legislated responsibilities that it carries out in various ways to support the well-being of us all. But the municipality can’t possibly do the things that the community does.

Sometimes we separate out “the business community“, and businesses certainly make a distinct contribution. Your favourite spot in town might be a cafe or bookstore – not because of what they sell, but because of how. Contributions to community are usually about quality more than quantity. The municipality also offers customer service, and we strive for that same level of quality service that local businesses do, and we support the DBIA as a committee of council; but local government alone could never provide the sense of community that you have when you walk into a shop where the owner knows your name and your order. A community is more than just the town, or the transaction. Quality service, and the sense of community it generates, is about personal connections with people.

Instead of blogging last weekend, I attended the matinee performance of Matilda staged by East Northumberland Secondary School students. A brilliant performance all around, and it was packed. People lined up for almost an hour to get in, and other performances were similarly busy. And the latest run of the Brighton Barn Theatre, Drinking Habits, also had good reviews. The newly re-formed Brighton Arts and Culture Council and their members bring so much beauty, popping up in planned events and everyday acts of art. The Codrington Farmer’s Market recently came to council looking for support to ensure that they can pay local musicians to play on market days. The cultural contribution of our students and volunteers can’t be measured, but our community would be bland without them. The municipality might facilitate this through grants, patronage, and providing installation space, but we could never replace or duplicate it.

People sometimes approach me to ask if the municipality is going to build community gardens. I’d love to see community gardens, but that’s not something the municipality can build; gardens need to be cared for, and even if the municipality set aside land, maybe even built raised beds, it would take community to make the gardens grow. But the Brighton Garden Club was founded in 1925, I bet they have the expertise and membership to get a community garden started!

Service, arts, and gardening are just a few examples of things that people just do, because they care about people and enjoy their hobbies. Those are the kinds of things that no government or professional organization can do, and they’re the essence of community.

So Where do Community & Municipality Meet?

If community is the product of people’s passions and love for one another, of course an institution like local government can’t replace it. So what is the local government’s role in community?

First, to recognize its own limitations. As with the community gardens example, there are many things that, if the municipality were to try them, would fail simply because they need to start with community if they’re going to succeed. If the municipality tries to get into the business of replacing real community with programs, it can do more harm than good. The harm is not that it will waste resources on sub-par programming that others might have done better for less, so much as the fact that it gives the impression that these things (like gardens) are the government’s job. When that happens, people stop organizing things for themselves, and another part of community becomes a transaction for taxpayers rather than an expression of love for people or passion for hobbies or ideas.

Second, the municipality can facilitate people doing things for themselves. Yes, it’s a very good thing for a community garden club to self-organize, fundraise, build planter boxes, etc., but maybe they can get a grant from the municipality to cover some costs, or perhaps we could set aside some corner of a public park. The municipality makes space for groups to meet, whether that’s through public meeting rooms at the arena or through our financial support of the library. We build public recreation spaces that are used by sports clubs and teams. There are many ways that we can support our residents doing what they love!

And third, the municipality can support the community better when the community supports the municipality (with more than just tax dollars). We have open democratic processes, public consultations, social media channels, and we’re always looking for ways to engage the community. If we hold a public meeting and the public doesn’t show up, there’s no community there; it’s just an institutional event, and there’s no real heart. But when there’s a public consultation packed with people sharing their ideas, hopes, and even frustrations, suddenly the institutional work of the municipality becomes community work. It gets much better results, and improves morale for council, staff, and residents.

On that last point, note: Strategic Planning sessions are coming up!

  • Saturday, May 13 2023, 10:00-11:30am
  • Tuesday, May 16 2023, 9:30-11:00am
  • Tuesday, May 16 2023, 12:00-1:30pm
  • Tuesday, May 16 2023, 6:30-8:00pm

These sessions will all take place in the Council Chambers at 35 Alice Street. They will be in a “fair” format, so you can come and go as you please; the start and end times are only there to guide us in when to bring out the food (yes, there will be food!).

Please come and dream about our future together! You’ll have the chance to comment on your priorities for Brighton, and ensure that our plans will include meeting your needs as they change over time. This is where municipality and community meet!

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