Last night, we had another stellar example of how some of our council members, including the mayor, while professing to want to encourage public engagement, are fully prepared to shut it down if the public happens to be interested in something they are not.
A few days ago, I received a call from someone who has been active in the local food movement. He was suspicious that that the chair of the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee (CNC) was trying to deflect public input into the issue of backyard chickens.
First, he told me, the report that the previous council had requested had been buried in a food security document, and now that Councillor Orser had managed to get the item on the agenda for the standing committee, he wanted delegate status in order to speak to the issue. And there were many other members of the public who wanted to do likewise. But when he tried to get delegate status through the committee’s secretary, he was informed that there would be a public participation meeting in August so no delegations were being accepted now.
I told him that was not unusual; if you get an item with a lot of public interest, a special meeting is called to ensure that it is well-advertised and held in a location that is appropriate to the numbers anticipated. The public gallery holds only 75 people.
I said it in good faith. Council has done this many times before. If a by-law that has significant impact is proposed to be changed, you give plenty of notice to the public and hold it in some place like Centennial Hall or the Convention Centre. That’s what happened with the drive throughs, pesticides, taxi licensing, London Hydro, and eliminating Board of Control.
I had read the staff report which recommended just that. The process was pretty standard. It didn’t occur to me that the committee would try to shut down public debate.
I was wrong.
When I arrived at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, the public gallery was rapidly filling up with interested citizens of all ages- children, teenagers, adults, seniors- and all backgrounds, including professionals and business persons. They believed that the meeting was at 4 p.m. (the starting time of the meeting) and that they would have an opportunity to have some input. They had collected more than 500 signatures of support for backyard chickens.
They sat quietly and respectfully through one presentation and debate after another: a request by Councillor Henderson to allow salt water to enter the storm sewer and ultimately the river, a presentation on child care, an informational session from 211Ontario. Finally, at the suggestion of Councillor Orser, Councillor VanMeerbergen, who was chairing, explained that the issue of backyard chickens would not come forward until later in the evening and there would be no opportunity for the public to weigh in. Most of those in the gallery left.
The issue finally came forward after the dinner break and following a couple of extensive presentations and debate. A few of the original spectators had returned specifically for this issue and a dozen or so who had arrived to witness other issues remained for this one.
Staff had recommended that before taking a final position on the matter of backyard chickens, council hear from the public to “assist Council in its decision-making process”.
This committee, however, decided it didn’t need any help from the public.
Councillor Matt Brown drew on his extensive canvassing experience. The public wasn’t interested in this issue, he asserted. In fact, this issue was an example of how the previous council had wasted time. He suggested that no action be taken and that this item be chucked in with all the other leftovers from the previous council and staff could come back with a report on which ones were worth pursuing. That would be the same staff, mind you, that had recommended a public meeting on this issue in August.
Orser objected. This was a denial of access to government, he complained. If there was not going to be a public meeting, then those who were in the gallery should have an opportunity to speak. They had followed the process, they had asked for delegate status and been denied because a public meeting was going to be held.
At this, one of the members in the gallery could not contain his anger. “No, No!” he yelled. “This is totally unfair. We have been deceived. This is bad faith!”
The chair informed him that this was not a public participation meeting, and if he couldn’t be quiet, he should leave or be escorted out.
Supporting Orser was Councillor Armstrong. He hadn’t heard much about this issue while campaigning but he had himself been the object of ridicule for championing off-leash dog parks and they had proved to be enormously popular. So he wanted to hear from the public to learn what they had to say.
Then it was the mayor’s turn. “The public always have the right to speak,” he said. "But we have a multitude of issues.” He gets so many calls and emails and petitions that “If we had a public participation meeting for all the issues we hear about, we’d get nothing done.
“Governing is all about making choices,” he continued. “We can’t do everything.” While respecting Orser’s passion, he felt it was misplaced. There are job losses. One in six kids goes to bed hungry every night. “The total preoccupation should be how we spend the taxpayers’ money. How to make this city more compassionate and caring. But you can’t do everything. You have to focus on two or three things.”
This was interesting since the mayor has been described as “the champion of everything”, that he never says no to anyone.
“Sometimes you have to say, 'I’m sorry, not today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next year.'” My guess is what he really meant was never.
If there were things that couldn’t be addressed by the public, Orser wanted to know what they were. “Let’s make a list right now”, he demanded. “Either we have an open policy or we close the door. I can’t vote to cheat the people of the right to speak.”
VanMeerbergen seemed not to understand what the issue was. He argued that people don’t need chickens, that there are plenty of cheap Grade A eggs at the supermarket. Apparently the right of the public to speak, of open and transparent government, was not a matter that concerned him.
But that was what it was all about: Does our city council represent it citizens? Do they have the right to be heard on matters that they care about, even if they are in the minority?
The recommendation before the committee was not about whether or not homeowners could keep a chicken or two in their backyards, it was about whether council would hear from its citizens.
Five hundred citizens had petitioned their government to be heard on an issue. That was the same number required under the Municipal Act to force the council to redraw its wards in 2005, and when it refused, the matter was successfully appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board.
At the same meeting, the committee happily heard from a lobbyist for the plastics industry, the “Lad from Glad”, as one administrator called him. But citizens who had followed the process and believed in the integrity of the members of the committee were dismissed because their concerns were too minor.
In the end, the motion to take no action was supported by the mayor, VanMeerbergen and mover Matt Brown. Armstrong and Orser opposed it. Unfortunately, Councillor Usher was in the hospital and unable to vote. It could have been a tie. And a tied vote always loses.
This time, however, it was democracy that lost.