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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, September 12, 2012

Pints & Politics

Last night I attended my second ever Pints & Politics meeting, a gathering of Londoners who, while coming from different parts of the city and the economic and political spectrum, have in common an interest in what is going on in the city, particularly at city council. Some are interested in seeking municipal office in 2014 and all care about the democratic process and how they can influence it’s outcomes.

A quick review of Internet hits relating to Pints and Politics would suggest that its origins are conservative as most pertain to the Republican Party or the Chamber of Commerce in various U.S. jurisdictions. However, in London Ontario, there were members of all political parties in evidence, and a few who are politically unaligned.

The format is straightforward: participants learn about the event through Twitter, meet at a local restaurant where they order drinks and snacks over which they get to know the people across the table and on either side of them. Last night there were probably 40 to 50 such participants, mostly male although there was a strong female presence, and most in their 30’s and 40’s although some were in their 20’s or 50’s, and a senior or two were present as well. Many know each other already, having met online as Facebook friends, followed each other on Twitter, or subscribed to each others blogs.

Once people have received their food and drink, and made the acquaintance of their neighbours, the program gets underway.

There is a different host for each meeting. S/he introduces the topic, throws questions to the participants, times them to ensure the no one person dominates the evening. On this occasion, the host had a clothes pin and duct tape to ensure conformity. They weren't needed.

The topic of the evening was Integrity, Transparency and Accountability. The idea is to focus on how to do things better in the city without turning the event into a gripe fest. That means that ten minutes are dedicated up front to allowing participants to air their grievances. That’s ten minutes in total, not per person.

There was no shortage of contributions. Some thought the behaviour of the council was deplorable, especially in regard to the lack of decorum at council meetings. 

“Why are the (councillors) afraid of an integrity commissioner?” wondered one. Another was dubious that anything would happen in this regard “this time”. He hoped the stage would be set for the new council a couple of years hence.

Another attends council meetings regularly. He likes to tweet his observations when he’s not laughing. “It’s just awful,” he said, noting that he sits on a lot of committees and if they were as dysfunctional as what he has witnessed at council, he would stop going. 

“This council,” he noted, “is divided like no other. There’s just no interest in working together.” He warned against getting sucked in to that same frame of mind in Tweets; people have to beware of simply taking sides.

But who has responsibility for dealing with bad behaviour, countered another participant. She felt that decorum should start at the top, with the mayor. This drew a round of supportive applause. Others felt the city clerk should be able to enforce the rules of conduct. And, noted someone, “The city of Toronto has a speaker.” He felt that someone needs to rein in the council and the mayor. "City council should not be a soap opera."

But a lone voice spoke against hiring or appointing anyone to enforce the rules. For him, the only watchdog should be the public on Election Day.

Next some time was spent on trying to define the concept of integrity. A former member of council talked about the importance of developing a code of conduct to guide behaviour and the importance or recognizing as an elected official you are there to represent the constituents in your ward and your city. Not developers, not private interests, not your campaign donors, not your own ambitions. You are there to represent the public interest.

Others wanted to focus on character, on honesty, on examining one’s conscience. But there should room for latitude, to forgive the odd mistake, to overlook occasional lapses, countered one individual. His concern was with “a pattern of abuse.”

But how do we get council to adopt a code of conduct? To what extent as councillors educated about their roles and responsibilities? Is it just a matter of their characters, or are they lacking in education, as Rob Ford claimed to be?

The former councillor suggested it was both; there is simply too much to tackle in the orientation sessions and the material is provided at a very high level. But it's also true that not everyone is interested in learning their roles. And some want to learn the rules only so that they can figure out how to get around them.

"We need to change the culture at council," suggested on participant. "We need to elect the kind of people who are prepared to create that culture." But others pointed out that most votes are based on name recognition, not recognition of integrity and most people have very little knowledge of what goes on at city hall; that’s why oversight is needed. And a code of conduct and its enforcement is not just for the council, it’s to let the public know what the expectations are as well.

One participant stressed the need for writing letters to the editor; blogs and tweets and Facebook posts were all fine and good, but “There is power in the printed word!” she exhorted.

That brought forward a string of practical suggestions: a “shame the councillor” Facebook page; talking to friends and family; lobbying your council representative; track voting records and compare it to the councillors’ platform. Apparently an electronic voting record is being prepared and help was being sought to complete the project.

“Four years is a long time between reward and punishment,” pointed out one.

Finally, the matter of transparency was put on the table. Despite the fact that council now votes electronically, the results are displayed only briefly and it can be very difficult to locate them on the minutes of the meeting. The press was seen as doing little to give the public a true picture of what is going on at council.

Several members were concerned about the influence of donations on council decision-making. A suggestion that the province prohibit all donations not from individuals drew a strong burst of applause.

All in all, I found it a heartening experience. It was great to hear so many of the younger generation discuss local issues in a thoughtful fashion, not the usual “what’s in it for me” approach. There was respect for diversity of opinion, listening without interrupting, acknowledgement of each other’s ideas and contributions. Information was given as a resource to be shared, not as a weapon to attack others or a means of promoting oneself. And while there was much concern over the functioning of our current council, there was no criticism of any specific councillor. There was decorum.

Perhaps one Tuesday evening, Rogers TV could televise Pints & Politics instead of city council, and the councillors could get to watch along with the rest of their constituents.

Now, wouldn’t that be interesting?


Anonymous said...

This could not be truer: "most votes are based on name recognition, not recognition of integrity and most people have very little knowledge of what goes on at city hall; that’s why oversight is needed"
I cannot see anyone voting for certain council members had they known what they were actually like, beyond a pamphlet that was handed out during election time. I suppose the public need to become more engaged in the local news to select better candidates in future...but it's asking for a lot in a time when people are so busy in their own daily lives. In the end, I think it would help if there was a Code of Conduct coupled with strong leadership from the mayor, rather than grandstanding combined with smoke and mirrors.

Anonymous said...

Transparency is Imperative. We should not be looking at our elected representatives and wondering "who paid for that"? The decorum at any meeting of elected officials has to be kept. I have found it disturbing that the people who shout louder either with their "voice or wallet" get the attention of elected representative.
Mor important to me is that they remember that they are "elected representatives"; they were not coronated.

Abe said...

Although the 'shame the councilor" idea might be effective in terms of getting the attention of an electorate that is generally disengaged. However, I don't think this represents an improvement to the political sphere, and hope we can find better ways to ensure integrity/civility. Perhaps focusing more on highlighting good behaviour and good efforts?

Peter Ferguson said...

I have been unable to attend the two Pints and Politics meetings held thus far, so I very much enjoy your coverage of the event and analysis of the discussion. 40-50 people in a restaurant/pub is a lot of people in a venue not designed for discourse among so many - and yet it sounds like it was more productive, more civil, and better organized than a City Council Meeting which has fewer participants (who are nominally "better trained" in public debate) and in a formal setting designed to facilitate discussion.

The fact you felt "heartened" about the Pints and Politics meeting speaks volumes about the quality - I know you've "spent time" (and I mean this as in the "I feel like I just spent time in prison" sense) in many public meetings to appreciate the really good ones. I'm sorry I missed that one.