Sewell: ranting is fine for the radio, it’s but no way to govern a city


A protestor is asked to leave during a meeting about casinos in Toronto

Those public hearings the city held about casinos? I didn’t attend. The chance of learning anything new about casinos was limited. The chance of the meeting being hijacked by one faction or another was high. The chance of influencing any politician was nil. Why spend a few hours getting frustrated?

It was the same with the public sessions about the city’s budget. What’s the value to anyone of having two minutes to speak to a group of distracted councillors about a budget worth more than $9 billion? City hall holds these kinds of sessions just to say it’s listening to the public.

Consultation and discussion of public issues could be a good thing, but city hall doesn’t have much interest in either pursuit. There’s almost no real discussion or debate at council meetings, just bald statements crafted for the media’s maw. The notion that one can learn from open discussion or be influenced by the thoughts of others has been lost at City Hall, and that deficit carries through to the way our councillors deal with citizen participation. They treat it like an empty shell.

Maybe city hall has taken its cue from talk radio. Talk radio has nothing to do with debate and everything to do with rants, undisciplined outbursts that have every intention of closing an issue and no wish to listen or to learn. 

Our first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, prized discussion of public issues as the best way to formulate one’s own opinion. The merit of debate was clear to him: “As [everyone’s] opinion will be submitted to the scrutiny of others, he will be guarded against that dogmatism and prejudice in favour of his own opinions which but too frequently lower the dignity and impair the usefulness of solitary students.”

“Maybe city hall has taken its cue from talk radio.”

Mackenzie understood that good opinions (and good actions) could only be arrived at by bouncing ideas off others. Open political debate, where people actually listen to others and learn from them, is the essence of democracy.

Past councils took citizen participation seriously. They crafted local working committees to mull over important local issues. The group would consist of a dozen or more people holding a variety of political opinions and would be charged with coming to a consensus on the issues at hand — the new land use policies for a community, traffic regulations, plans for parks and recreation and so forth.

More often than not these working committees came up with innovative solutions that found wide support. The secret was ensuring a wide and representative range of opinion on the committee, selecting people committed to honest debate and discussion, and making it clear the group would have to find a way forward.

But that doesn’t happen today. The public hearings required by the Ontario Planning Act are never constructed to find consensus on development projects. One gets the sense that staff and politicians have their own agendas, and the hearings are just delaying their own schemes.

Working groups are good at larger issues as well as neighbourhood problems. In the 1970s, Alderman Colin Vaughan headed up the working groups that rethought the plan for the central city. The groups wrestled with five contentious issues — discourage new large office towers, encourage housing downtown, focus on transit rather than road improvements, protect older buildings and build a lot of assisted housing — but the groups did their work and the Central Area Plan was the final product. It was a bold new vision that has served the city well for 40 years.

Maybe this would be a good starting point for the next two years at City Hall. Our elected representatives could craft processes that allow for open and inclusive debate and discussion. I suspect it would create good reasons for members of the public to agree to lend their energy to city issues and would lead to a significant improvement in the way we are governed.

Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books.

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