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"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."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Egg on their faces?

Sometimes a councillor can have more influence on council by staying away than by showing up.

Heading off to the meeting in council chambers on Monday evening, I was pretty sure that the council would not reverse the recommendation of the Community and Neighbourhood (CNC) to abandon the idea of a public participation meeting on the issue of backyard chickens.

It’s true that the group Operation Chicken had acquired even more signatures during the Carfree Festival on the weekend. Rumour had it that there were more than 1,000 names on the petition.  Still, if committee members were not prepared to listen to 500, I doubted that another 500 would make much difference.

As well, the “progressives” on council were handicapped by the fact that Councillor Harold Usher was recovering from surgery to remove a tumour, and, to the best of my knowledge, Councillor Judy Bryant had not yet returned from New Zealand, her native land.

Added to that, the London Free Press had undertaken a little survey of councillors over the weekend. It found little support for a public participation meeting. Most seemed to take the position of Councillor Matt Brown. They had bigger fish to fry.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Bryant had indeed returned. But almost simultaneously I learned that Councillor Bill Armstrong, who had supported a public participation meeting at CNC, would be absent as a result of the death of a sister.

Councillor Joe Swan was in the hallway conferring with Matt Brown about the outcome of the vote. You never know how Swan will vote; it was clear this time that he wasn’t interested in hearing from the public on this issue.

The meeting started late. Members of the Built and Neighbourhood Environment Committee were in a special meeting consisting of eight items left over from the previous week, including an in camera session to get a legal opinion on a couple of issues before making  recommendations on them to council.

Once things got under way, there were a lot of agenda items that took precedence over what most of the members of the gallery were awaiting. There were community and business awards, an appointment to a commission, the Annual General Meetings delegations from London Hydro and London and Middlesex Housing. Finally, when 7 o’clock had come and gone, the issue came forward.

From the outset, it was clear that things had changed.

Although acting committee chair Paul VanMeerbergen placed the motion to “take no action” on the recommendation to hold a public participation meeting on the council floor, he was immediately succeeded by Councillor Stephen Orser who thanked his colleagues for their “change of heart.” Earlier that day, he had paid a visit to Usher in the hospital where he was recuperating from surgery. Usher wanted other members of council to understand that the members of the public who had requested delegate status from him as chair of the CNC had been informed that they would have an opportunity to speak at the public participation meeting in August, something that had been envisioned by the previous council. He sent a letter to council prior to the meeting to confirm this.

We are a Council that prides itself on citizen engagement and this is one opportunity to prove
we are serious. As Council Members we know that we will ├że faced with many issues; most will
be important to all, but some will seem more important to some than to others. We should not
unilaterally or autocratically decide if an issue should or should not be heard. A member of the
public might well have a piece of valuable information to help us decide on a matter in a
democratic fashion.

That put a whole new complexion on things. Suddenly, even some of those who had been adamantly opposed were willing to reconsider their positions. Even Matt Brown, author of the original motion to take no action conceded that cutting off debate was not acceptable. He still thought the exercise was a waste of time; thousands of people on the campaign trail last summer had told him so. But he was willing to allow the meeting to take place.

That was also Joe Swan’s opinion. Although he would support a public meeting out of respect for Usher, he knew that doing so was a waste of time. Taking his cue from the mayor’s earlier complaint about the amount of reading required, Swan picked up his council and committee agendas and placed them in front of him for all in the audience and media to see. It was an impressive stack. There was too much too read, you can’t do everything.

This was a holdover from the last council which had been “way off course.” For him it was simple: “Chickens belong in rural areas. People belong in urban areas.” He felt it was dishonest to hold a meeting on this when in the end backyard chickens was way down on everyone’s priority list. “Call the vote on chickens right now,“ he challenged.

Similarly, Councillor Denise Brown, while willing to support a public meeting, warned of what backyard chickens might attract. “Mice, raccoons, skunks, even bears.” She knew; she was raised on a farm. Several spectators in the gallery were curious. They hadn’t heard of any bears in Old South, the area that she represents.

Some members of council were more receptive. Councillor Sandy White, while “not too crazy about chickens in my back yard” expressed a willingness to hear from the public, as did Councillors Paul Hubert and Judy Bryant. Councillor Bud Polhill used the opportunity to reiterate why he had opposed the renaming of a street to Mark Wilson Street, because there hadn’t been a public participation meeting for it. Therefore, he felt obliged to support a public meeting for backyard chickens.

Others were clear about their reasons for supporting such a meeting. Councillor Nancy Branscombe was “appalled at the way the public has been dealt with. They were dismissed and ridiculed,” she argued. “Citizens need to be able to bring their issues to council, large and small.”

Likewise, Councillor Joni Baechler wanted to know “Who decides what issues are important? I’m for open government,” she declared. “This govt doesn’t have the license on good ideas.” As for not having enough time to read and do everything, she suggested that multi-taking was part of the job. “If you can’t do that, maybe you shouldn’t be here.”

The mayor used the opportunity to berate some of the members of the council and of the gallery. He wanted people to know that this was a much more accessible government than London had ever seen. He goes to hundreds of public events. He holds town hall meetings. But “this council sets priorities,” he said. “Swan is absolutely correct,” he continued. He’d rather be upfront about them and chickens and water bottles weren’t what is was about. “Where are chickens on your priory list?” he challenged the council.

It was left to VanMeerbergen to sum up. A year earlier when he had been on the Environment and Transportation Committee, he had been the one who moved to take no action.” It’s the right motion, he concluded. “ Each one of us is elected. That’s democracy, majority vote.” A public meeting would just be for show.”

The final vote was 11-2 in favour of holding a public meeting, a victory of sorts for those who had fought to have their voices heard.

But many were left to wonder what, if anything, was gained when so many members were prepared to hear, but not to listen.

The public participation meeting will take place on August 16.


Anonymous said...

All I can say to Councillor Usher is "SENSATIONAL!"

I'm a little surprised that Councillor Swan, the Corley Road socialist, has so little sympathy for his avian fellow travellers. Perhaps it's all part of his positioning for a future mayoral run.

I think Gina that your skepticism about the degree of openness to really considering the options is well founded.

What lingers after last night's meeting is the acrid smell of contempt for public views at variance with the Daddy-Knows-Best certainty of Mayor Joe and his council minions.

Anon one

Anonymous said...

When the Mayor says that the city has much higher priorities than backyard chickens, what he means is that he's got to get on with keeping his promises to greenlight every development scheme that his friends ("yes, yes, Allan, I'm trying to get them in line.") have in mind.

Cynic said...

So Joe F going on the rubber chicken tour to stay firmly in the limelight he so craves is keeping government accessible? What dat?

Chris D. said...

Written to all members of Council except the Mayor.
Subject: Backyard Chickens

During the election all of you went door to door promising accountability, transparency and representation. Where are you now that the votes have been cast. Many of you have disappeared from the public eye and do not even respond to suggestions or requests. Regardless of which side that you are on, the public has a right to be heard on the issue of Backyard Chickens. It is a valid subject that should be addressed at a public forum. It is always best to hear the arguments before making up your mind. Many of you have simply treated the issue as a joke, yet many municipalities have implemented policies on chickens and many are much bigger than London.

What is the fear of hearing from your electorate. I urge you all to at least support the debate on the issue.

Anonymous said...

I see how driven the mayor is to get businesses flourishing. While he sees the hen topic as a distraction, I see it as one of the keys to a healthy, thriving city. We need much more local/urban food growing and self-sufficiency. And ultimately, there is no long term success of any kind without a healthy environment.

There are many cities that permit hens. Council needs to see examples of these models. And, it should not require a mass of public support for approval: truly, not that many people are going to keep hens anyways. I've lived for years with my neighbor's hens right nearby and they were no problem whatsoever. People who have never lived with hens have many misconceptions about them. Many live near them and have no idea.

Anonymous said...

The "chicken topic" like saving woodlands in the SWAP plan, are like the "canary" in the coal mine. If the Mayor and council are too pre-occupied with more important things, the public feel they are only there to serve developers and big business. We who elected you and pay property taxes are concerned with quality of life, not a bigger city with bigger problems and higher taxes. Anonymous.