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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."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The public's here: Where is the committee?

For some months now, council has been concerned about fostering public engagement: how do you get people to take an interest in the goings on in their community and at city hall?

By now, members should have figured it out. People show up if you try to take something away from them (witness the River Road Golf Course), if you try to build something close to them (condo apartments in Wortley Village), if they have a pecuniary interest in the outcome (location of drive throughs or changes to  taxi or landlord licensing). All matters which have a direct effect on residents. No wonder they show up; they want to protect their earnings and profits, their property values, their way of life.

But sometimes people are motivated by more than self-interest; some also care passionately about the welfare of others. That is what we witnessed on Tuesday at the 7:00 p.m. public participation meeting before the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee (CNC) on expanding animal welfare services.

The meeting had been planned for months. Staff had brought forward several reports to council and had held a special Saturday morning briefing and discussion with several dozen identified animal welfare and rescue groups. The reports had been circulated and the Animal Welfare and Advisory Committee had been busy preparing its responses to the reports. Blogs had been written and interviews conducted on talk radio.

So it should have been no surprise that a lot of people turned up for the meeting. There have been plenty of precedents, the threatened deer cull a few years ago being a recent example. Many people are passionate about animals, those that they consider “theirs” and others as well.

And turn up they did. Many arrived an hour or more before the scheduled time. They were evacuated from the room so the committee could hold an in camera meeting prior to breaking for dinner. By the time the room re-opened, the second floor lobby outside the mayor’s office was jammed with presenters and spectators. It was clear that not all could be accommodated.

Part of the problem was that the council chambers is once again under construction in order to install the wiring that will allow for the long awaited electronic voting that was promised for the beginning of this year. As a result, the meeting was being held in a double committee room, half of which was taken up by the accommodations for committee members and staff. There was seating for perhaps 70 members of the media and public, not nearly enough for the couple of hundred people who wanted to get in.

That created a problem for the committee chair, Councillor Harold Usher, back on the job after undergoing major surgery for cancer last month. When every chair had been taken, and no standing room or window ledge seating remained available, and many potential participants were still stranded in the hall and lobby, he had a dilemma to resolve: to go ahead and leave some out in the hall where, because there is no sound amplification there, some would be unable to hear or to re-schedule the meeting to another day.

Finding another room was out of the question; this was the largest room available at city hall. Moving across to Centennial Hall, even if the facilities were available, would have been a violation of council procedure. Because it was a public meeting it could only be held off the premises if council so approves and the notification of the off site location is duly advertised to the public. It was a little late for that.

But staying in the room could have resulted in a violation of fire regulations, especially in the half of the room reserved for public seating.

The chair decided to go with a postponement. He wanted everyone to have an opportunity to hear as well as to speak and it didn’t seem as if that could occur under these conditions. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with the crowd, and they let him know it.

I didn’t envy the chair his job; a few years ago, the planning committee experienced the same thing when we held a public participation meeting on drive throughs. The gallery was filled to overflowing with environmentalists and Tim Horton’s employees. On that occasion, we postponed the meeting, but those turned away were very unhappy. We heard about it for weeks thereafter.

The chair apologized; the committee and staff hadn’t anticipated this degree of interest.

Diane Fortney, co-chair of the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee cut him short. Pushing her way to the microphone, she was adamant that they should have known. “People love their animals,” she pointed out. “The community has worked very hard on this; it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone on council. We’ve had petitions. Council set up a task force. You hired an animal welfare coordinator. People called and emailed the clerk about the venue. I feel extremely disrespected.”

Others chimed in. They had called and emailed. “Why is the onus always on us (to accommodate)?” one woman asked. “We are disappointed in your lack of preparation for this.”

But despite their frustration, they quickly offered a suggestion: everyone squeeze in a little more, there was still a lot of space in the committee’s half of the room, councillors could move over  a bit, let the public sit at the tables, some could sit on the floor within the U of the tables. More chairs were brought in. A few spectators had already given up and left. Those who had stayed were accommodated. The room warmed up a bit more. The mayor’s assistant brought in pitchers of cold water. Frustration turned into anticipation.

Jay Stanford, director of environmental programs, started it off with a few facts and figures- some hard, others speculative- and then spoke of the changes that had been introduced since 2007, good work but not nearly enough. He wanted more, more resources for spay and neuter programs, more focus on adoptions, more emphasis on licensing, more care than control. He concluded his remarks to enthusiastic applause. It was clear that he has gained the respect and support of the activists in the community with whom he has been working for eight years.

Then came the presentations from the community, 30 in all, some representing  various rescue and welfare volunteer organizations, others just speaking for themselves, but almost all with one voice: stop killing healthy animals and don’t call it euthanasia; encourage, facilitate and mandate spaying and neutering; eliminate the artificial limits on the numbers of animals permitted in households; improve licensing compliance; adopt the Calgary model of providing animal welfare services, provide resources for the volunteer groups.
But the strongest support came for ending the nearly 30 year monopoly of the private for profit business that runs Animal Care and Control. That contract terminates in 2013; no one spoke in favour of renewing it.

Vicki VanLinden, a member of several animal welfare groups, explained it best. Why would you contract out a service when there is no transparency in the services provided? Using landscaping as an analogy, she pointed out how, if the grass didn’t get cut, you could tell and you would know that you’re not getting value for your money. But we don’t see what goes on in a pound. And if the grass didn’t get cut, and volunteers bought lawn mowers and cut the grass, why would you continue to pay the company you had contracted?
And that is what is happening: the work of rescuing, fostering and adopting is being done by volunteers. Why are we paying Animal Care and Control $2.3M per year?

“Community volunteers are overworked, under-appreciated and under-funded,” she concluded.
The other organization that was given short shrift was the London Humane Society which provided animal services to the city prior to 1982. Former chairperson Joris Van Daele noted how that organization, previously membership-based, had recently found a loop-hole in the Corporations Act which allowed it to disenfranchise all its members and to be run exclusively by a six member board with no public reporting.

Neither Animal Care and Control nor the London Humane Society sent representation to the city’s public meeting on expanding animal welfare initiatives. A telling absence.

Also absent were half the members of the committee: the mayor, who rarely misses any committee meetings, and Councillors Steve Orser and Paul VanMeerbergen. Both of the latter two were present for the first half of the CNC meeting but did not return for the public meeting on animal welfare. Of the other council members, only Councillor Judy Bryant and, as I learned later, Denise Brown, were present for the meeting.

Sometimes council has difficulty engaging the public; sometime the public can’t engage the council. It’s too bad. The meeting was a rare show of public’s willingness to work with the city and its appreciation of having the opportunity to be heard.

If the recommendations of the committee are supported by council next week, the submissions from the public will be incorporated into a new report and plan for council’s approval on September 13.


Barry Wells said...

The worst case of an aversion to hearing from the public involves the controversial public participation meeting regarding backyard laying hens ~ a movement sweeping across North America and the world for the past decade.

Currently, more than 300 North American cities regulate backyard laying hens, including New York City, Chicago and Vancouver.

As usual, insular London, Ontario, is often the last to see the light.

For several members of city council to actually admit ~ including Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan ~ to having their minds made up before the public participation meeting of August 16, 2011, constitutes "an apprehension of bias" in its most blatant and worse form.

I recall reading about a young Londoner creating a new small business involving outdoor garden sheds. Could his new business also include new compact chicken coops for 3-5 backyard laying hens. You betcha.

It will likely be the next city council that figures this out. This crowd by majority vote is definitely lagging behind the Bell Curve. Pity.

It only took London city council about six years to support a ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides so there is hope yet ~ for the next generation.

Judy Bryant said...

Thanks Gina,
I was there for the whole meeting. My grateful thanks to all 30 speakers and volunteers who have worked many years for improved animal rights here in London. Mr Stanford's report, now coming forward to Council, is thorough and well researched. Council has the opportunity to bring much need change.

Sara said...

There are definitely strengths and weaknesses in the process of setting up a public participation meeting. There are also quite a few of these meetings each month. Perhaps a meeting of the three committee chairpersons, the Clerk, and the CAO could improve the situation or recommend changing the rules.

Gina Barber said...

@Judy Bryant. thanks, Judy. With a crowd like that it was hard to see who all was there. I have amended the blog to reflect your correction.