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All of a sudden, I miss everyone at city council

This week's Market Squared is a love note to Mondays.
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Screenshot of Guelph City council holding up thank you signs at the end of last Monday's emergency council meeting. GuelphToday file photo

For five years, my Monday nights have been all about city council. On Thursday, you get the new council agenda, on Friday you get the amended agenda, and on Monday you go to the meeting.

I’m not saying that it’s not sometimes a slog. There are times in the middle of budget season where the meetings are coming so fast, and the matters being tackled so complex, that you wonder if there will ever be a time when you will once again see the light outside the council chambers.

I’m not sitting here wondering if I will ever see the council chambers again, I know I will, but the weekly council meeting is my sanely dose of regularity, and it’s how I feel like I’m most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mostly, my life is unchanged. I do must of my work in Guelph Politico headquarters, deep underneath Snake Mountain, even when there’s no pandemic going on worldwide, but I do miss occasional changes of venue to the coffee shop. Or the library. And yes, visits to city hall.

The withdrawal was mitigated somewhat by this week’s emergency council meeting, which was mostly attended by telepresence, and that includes all 12 city councillors. Getting this hit of civic governance through a screen was fine in the moment, but it was ultimately fleeting.

Don’t get me wrong, I'm not advocating that we open city hall again. I recognize that this is a unique crisis, and the shortest path to its end is for all us to put two metres between each other at all times but miss all those faces around the horseshoe.

I miss Mayor Guthrie and his dad jokes, and his gentle nagging when his colleagues get long winded.

I miss the councillors and how they manage to reach consensus by bringing 12 different point of view to the table, and sometimes 12 different sets of goals in terms of their political goals and ambitions.

I miss CAO Scott Stewart and how his calm, measured timbre can sometimes be a beacon in a churring hurricane of political debate.

I miss the other members of senior city staff and the executive team, who’s professional advice and expertise is always questioned, yet is always answered with open-mindedness and assurance.

I miss my media colleagues, and our sometimes-snarky banter as we observe the proceedings. You can’t hear us, but there’s some Statler and Waldorf-level stuff at the media table.

And I miss the regulars. The people who are frequently on the council agenda as delegates and are representing their learned interest be it specific or wide-ranging. I have seen their advice taken, and I have seen their advice ignored, but they are the grease that lubricates local democracy, and keeps it from squeaking too loud.

But I think the biggest thing I miss, and we will all miss it more as the crisis passes, is time.

All city council meetings have been cancelled until May, and that means seven scheduled agendas have been pushed back to a future date, and the future date in which people will be able to gather again in large groups is far from certain.

Theoretically, some of this can be handled in the newly approved emergency meeting format, but how much city business can practically be done without the input of the general public in the form of delegations? Heck, even before things get to a meeting, how much city business can proceed without town halls and open houses to get general public feedback?

Of course, it’s impossible to imagine that anyone at city hall is really thinking beyond the present predicament right now. How can you plan for the future when you have no idea when the future can begin?

At the same time, to think that our problems will end with social isolation is probably short-sighted. As mentioned at Monday’s virtual meeting, the finance department is going to be working twice as hard to account for all the emergency spending, and re-balance the budgets now that all their best laid fiscal plans have been blown up.

It reminds me that one of the biggest victims of the current public health crisis is routine. Have you forgotten what day of the week it is yet? Be honest.

Routine will probably be the last sign that things are normal again once the state of emergency is over. It may be a while before council business is once again absorbed in presentations about how Guelph is a gold medal data collector, or other such politically affirmative bric-à-brac that represents our normal public order.

And on a personal note, it will be a wonderful day when I can write about things without talking about disease, or quarantine, or closure. The Ontario government released the “Sunshine List” last Friday, and though I generally find the “Sunshine List” an overwrought piece of political theatre, I have to admit, it was a pretty good day going over that spreadsheet!

So, in conclusion, let me add my voice to the clarion call to self-isolate yourself for the duration. I want to see all my friends again once we get to the end of this.