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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."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The state of civic engagement in London

On Thursday evening I shared the stage at the Wolf Performance Hall with fellow bloggers Phil McLeod and Glen Pearson. The three of us had been invited by the Citizen's Panel, a group that grew out of Occupy London, to present our views on civic engagement in the City of London. The following is what I prepared for my segment of the evening.

The state of civic engagement in London

I wrote my first blog on September 22, 2009. It started as a means of communicating more effectively with the residents of London, particularly about controversial issues, and the issue of the day was certainly controversial. The issue was Landlord Licensing.

For many years, residents in Old North, the area close to the university, had had complaints about absentee landlords, renting out once gracious old family homes in residential neighbourhoods, mainly to out of town students whose ties to the community were weak. Inadequate maintenance, by tenants and owners alike, threatened the livability and the property values of the remaining residents. Often too many tenants were crowded into overpriced but substandard and unsafe accommodations. 

Council had established a Town and Gown Committee to bring together representatives of the city, the educational institutions, the students and the affected communities and had made some progress in addressing concerns.

One of the approaches undertaken was to make the owners of rented facilities more accountable for the condition of their premises. Since renting out a room or apartment is essentially a business, the planning committee of the day recommended taking a business licensing approach: anyone renting out a unit should be required to take out a license and meet safety and building codes.

It sounded simple enough, but we didn’t count on the immediate backlash (or preemptive strike) from the property managers. Although the recommendation was only for converted buildings with 1 to 4 units, and the cost of the license only $25 per building for a three year period, the property managers sent out notices across the city warning tenants that as a result of the “Tenant Tax” rents would be going up $20/month.

The public was certainly engaged! We received emails and phone calls galore. Some property managers circulated petitions to their tenants. At least one developer/landlord brought busloads of seniors from Cherryhill to a public participation meeting. The room was packed. The voices of the industry pretty much drowned out those of the community under siege.

During all of this, I needed to find a way to handle all the correspondence. I did a lot of cut and paste of responses, but it was time consuming, although I did want to personalize my emails. And so I started to write an account of the issue that I could refer people to for all the details while giving a brief individual response.

I soon found that it was a useful way of keeping track of the various issues and how council had dealt with them, so it became a form of record-keeping as well. And finally, it became a way to educating the public about how things work at city hall and how decisions are made.

That final function is probably the main focus of my blog at present. I recall all too well how confusing everything was for me in those first few months on city council, figuring out the conventions and the main players, anticipating barriers, and identifying opportunities for making a difference.

If we’re going to have productive public engagement, we need public education. Our democracy depends on both an educated and engaged citizenry.

Without education, citizens are easily intimidated by “experts”. Without education, people are subject to disinformation campaigns. Without education, the interests of the public are quickly overshadowed by the interests of so-called “stake-holders”.

The problem was not so much how to get public engaged as how to get public engaged with council in a way that is mutually respectful and productive since there is naturally a certain amount of suspicion on both sides. As Phil pointed out, councillors are afraid of losing control. And nobody trusts a politician.

The subject of civic engagement has been raised frequently at city council both while I was there and since the new council has taken office. Everyone supports public engagement.

Unfortunately, not everyone is thrilled by the form that engagement takes, or the outcome of the engagement.

Councillors like words of praise and gratitude and applause, if it’s for them. But the public tends to become engaged when it needs something or, more commonly, when something it already has is threatened. So the public arrives at city hall with demands, usually related to a specific neighbourhood. They are there to complain, not compliment.

Our current council is getting better at letting the public speak. All of you will remember how the public was originally shut out of providing any input on the matter of urban agriculture. Some on council had decided the issue was not worthy of debate although I understand that Montreal is going through a similar exercise at present. Eventually council relented when the chair of the committee made a request from his hospital bed to allow a public participation meeting.

But allowing public delegations and holding public participation meetings does not necessarily mean that the public is heard. Recently, when one of the largest public participation meetings was held on the issue of animal welfare initiatives, several members of the committee failed to show up. The room provided was not large enough to hold everyone despite the fact that the clerk’s office had been advised of a long list of speakers.

And sending an email is no guarantee that its content are read and taken into consideration. According to citizen complaints (and my own experience on council bears this out), too many councillors don’t bother even to acknowledge receipt, let alone provide a personal response. Some responses are curt to the point of being rude.

There is also the perception that some councillors have their minds made up before a matter goes to the committee. Requests to hold meetings with some councillors have been rebuffed.

So whom do councillors represent?

While most councillors will claim they represent their wards, others specify “their voters”, a small proportion of their ward. If we look at the statistics from the last elections, some councillors were elected by only a very small proportion of their constituents, fewer than 2,000 votes in wards where eligible voters number more than 20,000. In many instances, the campaigns for those votes were made possible by the generosity of a few interested and affluent donors to their election campaigns. When issues arise at council which affect both the constituents of the wards and the donors, but in different ways, which voices are likely to be listened to? Who will get the longer speaking time?

What are we to make of a councillor whose chief concern about a development application affecting the community is how quickly we can get this done?

We have seen a number of examples recently: Reservoir Hill, Huron Street, Sunningdale when members of the community had acted in good faith, cooperated with the city for many years only to be thrown to the wolves.

No wonder citizens are mistrustful and suspicious. When they come to committee meetings, they are made to wait for hours, overseen by security, and sometimes ridiculed for their submissions. They witness remarkably bad behaviour and ignorance by councillors, and then are chided for laughing and lectured on showing respect. The discussions are hard to understand and the decisions not explained. In frustration, there are emotional outbursts.

It is no accident that the city clerk’s office recently recommended a policy for a code of conduct for members of the public at council and committee meetings. There is already a protocol for public delegations; you can find it on the city website. This recommended policy dealt with behaviour of the public. It was brought forward while the mayor was out of town, but the city clerk is not likely to take the initiative on something like this without some encouragement from an elected official. Acting mayor, Steven Orser acknowledged as much.

Fortunately, rational thinkers prevailed and the resolution that was subsequently adopted simply called for mutual respect.

But that has to start at council; councillors have to provide the model. They have to start coming to council prepared, they have to listen respectfully to each other; they have to stop interrupting, bickering,  and ridiculing each other’s suggestions and families. They have to stop referring to staff’s recommendations as “bone-headed”.

They also need to treat the public with respect, communicating with them in a timely fashion and an appropriate manner. They need to move along the debate so that they are not wasting the public’s time. They need to listen to and acknowledge the submissions being made. They need to explain their decisions and the reasons for them.

There is room for optimism, however. One task that has been given to the public to undertake is making recommendations for appointments to advisory committees.

Some of you may recall the rancorous nature of some of those appointments when made by council last year, including the one in which an experienced applicant was rejected in favour of someone with no experience and no application, who happened to be sitting in the public gallery. You may also recall that one councillor suggested that persons who use social media to criticize council should be removed from such committees.

I serve on that committee (which makes the recommendations)  as a member of the previous council. In two meetings, we were able to select our preferred candidates, without rancour and without political agendas. Where we didn’t have consensus, we had a run-off vote with a show of hands. Everyone felt heard and respected. Let’s see what council does with the recommendations.

As well, there are a lot of city-wide initiatives underway that invite public input. One of these is the Age-friendly London Taskforce which has involved about 200 seniors over the last eight months. It’s report is due at council next month.

Then there's the cultural prosperity initiative in which 40
Early next month the economic prosperity committee will ask the public about its preferences with regard to the council wish list for big ticket items.

Rethink London;1300 people registered for the kickoff. The city was clearly interested in getting public attention and involvement by investing in a drawing card like Peter Mansbridge.

A new city manager is coming to town at the end of the summer. By all accounts, he is very capable and personable. It will be good to have strong leadership at the helm again.

The council has paid lip service to wanting the public engaged; there has been a task force, recommendations and a working group. Reports have been received and endorsed. The final report will be in soon. The opportunities for implementing the proposals are waiting.

The ball is in council's court. And yours.

And if all else fails, there is always the next election. It’s not too early to start planning now.


Ivan Raszl said...

We don't experience these problems in Byron, but we're probably just lucky. Thanks for your work!

Anonymous said...

Dear Gina; I first want to apologize for using your blog space to leave a message that's not a comment related to the topic. In my defense I lost contact with your email address when Dale Henderson took over your position at city hall.
I'm pretty sure you'd enjoy this for a change of pace on Monday evening.
"Crusaders for the Coves!
Friends of the Coves Subwatershed Inc., in partnership with the Old South Community Organization and the City of London, presents the second showing of the Coves film.
The showing will be held at Hyland Cinema on May 28 at 7pm.
Admission is by donation with funds raised to go towards environmental projects in the Coves ESA.

For more information please call 519-640-5397 or contact@thecoves.ca
> Check out the trailer here!