Welcome to London Civic Watch

"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The committee lays an egg

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.


Oliver Hobson said...

Reportedly, 'most of those in the gallery left' because Paul Van Meerbergen refused to move the agenda item up to accommodate the families with small children who were in abundant attendance in the gallery at 4pm.

It appeared that time was being bought for the ex-officio member of the committee (Joe Fontanna) to put in an appearance in order to nix the opportunity for public debate.

This scuppered any chance for the public to have their say documented in support of backyard laying hens and a public meeting on the issue.

All in all it makes a total mockery of councils public statements referencing a want to engage more with the citizens of London.

Here they are and please note how they vote next!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IZI_AUhfic

Anonymous said...

Once again, Gina, thanks for making clear that the real issue at last night's meeting was the committee's deliberate decision to block public input.

Please do not think that I'm damning you with faint praise when I say that your coverage was superior to that of the Free Press. As usual, they opted for the semi-cute headline and missed the main point: deception and stifling of citizen voices at the same time as the city pretends it wants more citizen participation.

When we hear from the Mayor that:

"we want to hear from Londoners,"

"we'll create ten thousand jobs,"

and "London's future is bright,"

it would be wise to remember Lily Tomlin's advice: "No matter how cynical you get, you can't keep up!"

anon one

Anonymous said...

Nice to see that Matt Brown is living up to his Liberal party hack training. Joe's wish is his command.

Barry Wells said...

‎"Your municipal government works for you and it needs to hear your ideas and suggestions in order to meet the expectations and challenges of the city." ~ Mayor Joe Fontana ~ Bwahahahahahahahahahahaha!

It seems that Mayor Joe's above statement only applies to certain citizens.

Barry Wells said...

Altlondon.org gives Mayor Joe Fontana the prestigious "Bonehead of the Month Award" for denying citizens the right to have "standing" and be heard at the standing committee level regarding backyard laying hens.

Barry Wells said...

Regardless of how anyone feels about regulating backyard hens, they should support citizens having "standing" before London's standing committees.

Angie said...

It's time for Joe to stop being a one-issue mayor. Yes, taxes and jobs are important, but they're not the only issues that exist and you can't run a city pretending that they are.

+1 to Oliver's statement "All in all it makes a total mockery of councils public statements referencing a want to engage more with the citizens of London". What's the point of a Community Engagement Task Force if the city is going to shut down community input? You don't need a task force to tell you that when the gallery is full of people interested in an issue, they're trying to give you that input you claim to want. Listen to them.

Why's woman said...

I'm sorry to hear that Councillor Usher is/was in hospital, not just because I anticipated he would be in favour of a public participation meeting (as recommended by the staff which wrote the report about other municipalities' regulations around urban chickens). Last year, I recognized that City staff/council had little interest in talking about chickens (despite other undertakings to do with food security). However, I was naive enough to think that there would finally be a public participation meeting this year that would allow people to speak their hearts to the spirit of the issue ... in contrast to the report presented on Tuesday which answered the charge from last year and no more. I am really unsettled at what happened on Tuesday. If the matter of whether to hold a public participation meeting does go to Council next week, there's no knowing what's going to happen. This is a majority by one issue, and anyone's absence will be serious. My suggestion is that it is going to have to be citizens themselves who hold the public meetings, educate themselves about issues, learn how to raise chickens, find out how this all relates to food security, write the reports that answer any and all anticipated questions or problems, and - quietly as goes on 'round London already - raise chickens so that when the citizens are ready with the case and the support for it to change by-laws they'll be ready and have a plan to bring to Council. Oh, and coaches need to be found who can help people get 'round the web of City hall. With that off my chest - and believe me this is the short version of what's in my mind - I hope you won't mind if I refer people over to www.savingtheworldinmysparetime.blogspot.com where the June 15/11 entry is a copy of the resource list that one of my alter-egos submitted last year to every member of Council and to several staff members.

thanks Gina, and best regards,

Why's Woman

Anonymous said...

An affront to democracy...what was the cute euphemism to describe GBs little crew..."Killer Bs"...enough said. It must suck to be on the other side eh GB...to be one of us plebs.

I'm wondering if anyone has tried to estimate how much it would cost to properly police this issue. It's easy and cheap to say no (that it violates a particular bylaw). Now we expect Animal Control to properly measure the size of the coop, or the number of chickens, etc. I'm wondering if the same people who are championing this issue would be willing to put their money where their mouths are. Chicken licenses!

Barry Wells said...

(Silly post above, LP)

If city council votes to deny Londoners standing at standing committee regarding laying hens, ignore the bastards.

Once a council starts ignoring its own procedure by-law regarding standing for citizens before standing committees, they lose the credibility and moral authority to govern.

Best to simply ignore their ban on backyard laying hens as their by-laws mean nothing. Think civil disobedience. Ignore us and we'll ignore your by-laws.

Further, what many people fail to realize about this backyard chicken issue is that the City of London could regulate and control such things as minimum backyard lot size to be eligible, minimum distance separation between adjacent dwellings, no roosters, the number of hens, coop and run standards including cleanliness, fencing requirements, licensing fees on a cost-recovery basis for enforcement etc.

Definitely not the Wild West of Chicken Armageddon, given that more than 300 North American cities, including New York City, Chicago and Vancouver, currently regulate backyard laying hens with few problems.