Simulating City Council
Alexandra Flynn, Osgoode Hall Law School
City Council is comprised of elected officials with particular values, agendas and alliances. City Council simulations teach students that multiple parties play a role in municipal governance, that issues are messy and complex, and give them (and you) a chance to have fun while learning. The activity works best for classes with 15-25 students.
Here are some tips on constructing a City Council simulation for your class.
- Select a case study
The first step is to select a case study. Usually I look for an issue that is timely, controversial, and that students will relate to. Once you have the broad topic, focus on an issue that can be debated within an hour or two. For example, if you opt for a debate on public transit, further narrow to federal funding for the York-Spadina Subway Extension, removing all existing bike paths, or demolishing Allen Road.
- Craft a scenario
The scenario needs to be simple enough that the students can understand it even without a lot of advance study. At the same time, it should have sufficient richness to accommodate a range of actors.
The scenario is usually about 1-3 pages and has the following information.
- Month and day
- Genesis of the issue
- Details on the decision to be made
- Main proponents and opponents
- Information on relevant unelected actors
3. Prepare roles
In addition to a mayor and councillors, simulations can include city staff, activists and representatives other governments. Each student will need a role given to them alone setting out their background, position on the issue and specific conflicts they have with others. This is where you will need to draw deeply into your creativity.
- One councillor who has a grudge against another over
- A lobbyist may be blackmailing a councillor (over, say, election fraud) and is pretending to be an interested community member at the meeting
- A staff member may be pushing for a particular policy outcome, whose motives will be revealed during the meeting
- Participants who are completely silent or very vocal
Ask the students to inform you in advance if they will be missing the class so that you can prepare the correct number of roles.
4. Think about space
If possible, book a meeting room at a city hall in Toronto, Vaughan or Mississauga for your simulation (contact the municipalities to find out more). If you are not able to travel, use a room with a semi-circle configuration and space for students to move around.
Even in the best laid plan, there are wrinkles – a few students dominating the meeting, not enough participation, or a too-complicated fact pattern.
The first time you enact City Council, I would suggest that you act as the Speaker. This will allow you to manage the meeting and trouble-shoot issues.
- Provide “recesses” where elected officials and others can confer with one another
- “Call the question” on sub-parts of the issue
- Have an in-camera portion of the session (where all unelected officials leave the room)
Studies have shown the debriefing is as important as the simulation itself. The following two work well:
- In-class discussion: create an open space that facilitates discussion and allows everyone an opportunity to speak. Draw connections between what people say (eg, what were some of the themes observed; did it go well or not; did participants identify with their role?).
- Journaling: Journaling offers a safe space for students to communicate directly with the instructor and is especially good for shy and quiet students. Ask students to write 250 words on their experiences and provide feedback on their journal as quickly as possible.
Most of all: good luck and have fun!
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