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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Getting engaged or getting the boot?

There was a somewhat surreal quality to the Committee of the Whole meeting at city hall on Tuesday evening as councillors considered a presentation and interim report from the Community Engagement Taskforce (CETF) updating its activities.

The taskforce was established last April to assist staff in developing a policy on community engagement for council’s consideration. Its membership has been rather fluid; 62 persons were identified as having attended a majority of the 7 meetings held to date, including a significant number of city staff. Others have drifted away, feeling less than engaged by the exercise itself. A few incidents in which citizens felt further marginalized at meetings of standing committees added to the disenchantment of some.

Nevertheless, a healthy contingent of taskforce members could be found in the public gallery while Kevin Van Lierop and Heather Hallett guided councillors through the report. Other community members were on hand to assist with answering questions that councillors might have.

Many of us, whether in the gallery or on the council chamber floor, were following Twitter. The real civic engagement, or disengagement, was happening somewhere else, a few steps away, in Victoria Park.

Earlier that day, following a late night private meeting, councillors had acceded to the mayor’s demand that protesters known as Occupy London be evicted from the park with the aid of city police. What the exact wording of the motion was we don’t know. It was a secret vote on a secret motion in a secret meeting. We do know that the deadline on the eviction order was for 6 p.m., a couple of hours away as the taskforce began its presentation.

I was disappointed. Only a week and a half earlier, the mayor had earned my respect and admiration for the way in which he had invited the occupiers to bring their issues to city hall. He had called a special meeting of the committee of the whole to listen to them, and most, protesters and councillors alike, had responded positively and with mutual respect. While Fontana made no promises about allowing the protesters to continue their quest of self and public education in the park, he suggested regular conversations with council, “not just at election time”.

But now, on the day of receipt of a draft policy on community engagement, the goodwill had ended. Occupy London were told to pack up their tents and go. There were no councillors to speak with them; they were all (except Dale Henderson who was absent) busy trying to improve citizen engagement a block away, secure in the knowledge that their vote on the eviction notice would not be revealed. They didn’t have to be accountable.

There were, however, a few hints in the discussion that followed the presentation of the draft policy.

Paul Hubert kicked it off. He wanted to get right to the point. “At the end of the day, will we have a toolbox?” he wanted to know.

I can’t help but think of a toolbox as something that holds hammers and wrenches, neither of which should be needed for community engagement. But Dean Sheppard, who was fielding the question, assured him there would indeed be a toolbox, one had only to look at page 8 of the report. And there it was, all kinds of concrete suggestions to help city hall inform, consult and collaborate with the public and to encourage citizen leadership. Secret meetings and eviction notices were not among them.

Judy Bryant, one councillor who is always active in her community which includes several community associations, wondered how to get the community organized so that communication is easier. There’s email, but that is not as satisfactory. Meanwhile, a community had organized a block away. It was getting messages of support from religious, political and labour organizations. But not from city hall; it was too busy working on a strategy for community engagement.

Harold Usher, aka Mr. Sensational, knew what the people in his ward want. They want to know how city hall works. But he wondered what input the councillors would have in the suggested strategies. “Have you contacted us to find out how we want to communicate?” he wanted to know.

“That’s why we’re here today,” Sheppard responded.

It was Joni Baechler’s turn. She thanked the delegation for its work and then focussed on the comments that had struck a chord with her, that civic engagement is an art form which involves meaningful dialogue. Then she pointed out the incongruity of what was happening.

“In the park we have a group that’s totally engaged,” she said. “We can’t do business the way we used to do business. Some of us may have to learn to engage in ways that are uncomfortable for us. How can we communicate with those who are marginalized? How are we going to carry out our part of the conversation?”

She and Nancy Branscombe had visited the occupation site previously and spoken with the protesters.

Sandy White thought that the whole exercise was quite wonderful.  In her first term, she had written paper after paper on getting citizens involved.  But she had a question: “Why doesn’t council listen to staff?”

It drew a laugh but it was a good question. But she herself has frequently ignored staff recommendations with respect to planning applications, preferring to placate developers to getting an understanding of the engineering and land use concerns that staff members point out.

Joe Fontana tried to make light of the issue. “The other question is why doesn’t staff listen to us?” he quipped.  But members of staff are hired for their expertise and are guided by professional ethics.

White had another concern. What about citizen responsibility in their style of communication? Especially the blogs and what people say in their blogs; councillors read some of the blogs and they find them offensive. Some of you may recall that White had earlier tried to introduce a policy whereby those who made public comments would be denied appointments to advisory bodies or funding for non-profit organizations. Freedom of expression is not, apparently, a high priority for her.

Then Joe Swan took centre stage. He wanted to pose “some challenge to the kumbaya approach.” There is the difficult part of being a councillor, dealing with lobbyists and law-breakers. He stressed that there are legitimate forms of participation but sometimes a citizen is engaged but they didn’t get what they want. They don’t want to hear no. Was he referring to Occupy London or to the hapless resident who couldn’t understand how council could suddenly ignore 10 years of litigation and staff recommendations and simply let a local developer do what he liked on Reservoir Hill? It seemed to him that community engagement was perhaps moving from representative leadership to citizen empowerment.  Was council planning to move toward delegating and sharing power with the public?

Matt Brown focussed on the relationship between civic involvement and economic development. “It’s all about the quality of life.” He was particularly concerned about the style of communication, ways to package the message much more succinctly. Poor communication creates unnecessary panic in the community.

Fontana noted that the current system is not working, look at voter turnout. Only 25 or 30 per cent vote. He saw technology as a way to engage people. “We need a paradigm shift,” he announced. “It may be time to find unstructured ways people can come to their house, city hall. We may have to do it in exciting ways, turn things upside down.’

At that, Steve Orser suggested an accountability day at city hall, “Five minutes for anything that you want. Would that work?” Perhaps, but maybe a start would be to hold councillors accountable for their votes when freedom of expression and assembly is violated.

Bud Polhill was pleased with what he saw developing. He thought that council could teach the upper levels of government a thing or two about citizen engagement. “When we get this perfected we should send it to Toronto and Ottawa,” he suggested.

But citizen engagement, while fundamental to democracy, is not always pretty, Nancy Branscombe noted. “Sometimes it’s messy.” With the new technologies “People are talking to each other and we need to embrace it; we resist it at our peril. My fear is that it will be ignored.  If you turn people away once, they won’t be back.”

By now, everyone had had a chance to speak, although not all availed themselves of the opportunity. 

As the receipt of the report was about to be voted on, Baechler asked for an addition to the motion. 

She wanted to have some mention of the code of conduct in relation to citizen engagement. A session on council code of conduct with an outside expert was in the works; she wanted to make sure that part of that session would relate to citizen engagement.

Swan didn’t like it; he hinted that the mover had a personal agenda. Baechler was taken aback. It’s an issue to explore in a future blog.

The amendment passed and the report was adopted. It was just about time for the citizens engaged in a protest to leave the park and councillors to get a bite to eat.


Roderic Brawn said...

My wife and I always vote, and look at the kind of representation we get. The representatives of council are the hallmark of the constituents who elect them---or with such apathy in elections (signified by low turnout)fail to provide people of a different mindset and abilities, to do municipal business--- Maybe the citizens of this city look at council and say, to themselves "Can you believe those Councillors?" With such a pithy level of debate, is it in any way unexpected that most citizens cannot be bothered to vote? I mean that is the way voters get involved.
In my view at least, in many cases the most outrageous seem to win at municipal council elections.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of gutless wonders is this Council with their secret votes and secret meetings.

Perhaps the Mayor could give us another nice talk on transparency and accountability.

And let's have another study on how to engage the citizens.

Lily Tomlin had it right: "No matter how cynical you get, you can't keep up!"

anon one

Anonymous said...

How could the vote on Occupy London's eviction be in camera? If permitted, then afterwards, it should be in public. So how did the vote go down?

Sounds like the engagement thing is just a diversion so that the councillors can go back to thinking they know it all, just 'cause they got elected.

Anonymous said...

They talked
and they talked
and they said nothing.

Leila Paul said...

I hope they followed the rules of good theatre: everyone waits for their cue, don't step on another person's lines, don't steal someone else's scene and don't ad lib 'cause it screws up the cues for the others.

Meanwhile, if the play is more interesting in the audience you still ignore it - especially if the audience is not in the seats in the theatre but off in one of the people's parks.

This whole thing called city governance gets curiouser and curiouser and I'm still waiting for someone on stage to explain about accountability and anonymous votes and how that relates to a script on citizen engagement.

Gutless. One of them should reveal how the vote went down. Protestors were peaceful and should never have been evicted from the people's park. This is one black eye from which London may never heal.