Council’s still on break, so it’s a heckuva a time to start a City Hall column, but I recall back when the meeting schedule for 2017 was being fine-tuned late last year, it was mentioned that councillors take the extra time after the holidays to rest and reflect.
So let’s give them something to reflect on.
For the last two years, a controversial planning matter has come to chambers right before the Christmas break, proposals that resulted in late nights of contentious debate that, on both occasions, saw the majority go home angry about how council voted.
So it would be nice if we didn’t go for the hat trick in 2017, wouldn’t it?
Now obviously, this is beyond our control to a certain degree, and some of it's predicated on a question that’s easy to ask, but not so easy to answer: Is council there to do exactly what the public wants, or is it there to temper public passions? Ideally, it’s the latter.
We want our politicians to listen obviously, but it’s rather dangerous to think that we elect people because they can be swayed by the mob. We want to know that our politicians can’t be bullied in other words, but where’s the proverbial sweet spot between bullying and influence? That’s tough to answer, but clearly there’s sometimes a disconnect between the people and the politicians.
Let’s talk specifically. Back at the end of November, some 30 or so delegates came to council to speak on the five-storey condo development at 75 Dublin St N., and most of them were against. Reasons were split between those uncomfortable with the proximity of the new condo to Central School right next door, and heritage nerds uncomfortable with such a big building casting a bigger shadow on Catholic Hill. I could count on one hand the number of people in favour of going forward with the new building, and that’s including the four-person team the developer himself brought to delegate.
That late night at council reminded me of another almost one year earlier — the special council meeting held to decide the fate of the Niska Rd. bridge, the one-lane Bailey Bridge that many in the area, in addition to those aforementioned heritage nerds, wanted to see preserved.
Like the 75 Dublin matter, over 30 people came out, and I remember being perched in the stands, covering the whole thing, and noting that there was one, and only one, person in favour of proceeding with a new two-lane bridge along Niska Rd.
And they say one person can’t make a difference...
Yes, a lot of people concerned about a two-lane bridge, and the greater amount of traffic it invites, are still feeling the burn from council’s vote to accept the staff report endorsing said bridge, a direction that the City has since proceeded with enacting. The 75 Dublin decision, meanwhile, has gotten four appeals now filed with the Ontario Municipal Board just before Christmas, and that despite the fact that the underlying motivation for the development, $3 million in infrastructure funds from the federal government, is now off the table.
Certainly, there were problems with the 75 Dublin development process beyond the fact that the community seemed to rally against it. The timeline, due to the government’s almost absurdly tight deadline for the City to get their proverbial ducks in a row, probably made the process much more combative than it needed to be, but down on Niska Rd., replacing the so-called “temporary” Bailey bridge has been on the to-do list for years.
Still, the results were the same in both cases and a lot of people came out against it and a lot of people went home ticked when council decided to approve. I’m forced to ask myself why. It’s not terribly often that council throws out staff recommendations, and indeed council endorsed staff’s recommendation in both cases. Surely, the people that came out to delegate against thought they could create an exception rather than follow the rule, but government decisions are sometimes like trains, the further they travel, the harder it is to slow down and stop, and those council meetings are pretty late in the process.
So how do we avoid this situation in the future? Communication.
I noted afterward that many on council used their websites, blogs and social media accounts to explain their decisions after the fact. Good idea. The conversation doesn't stop when the meeting is adjourned, but how about starting the conversation before the meeting begins. On Open Sources Guelph last week, Ward 2 Councillor Andy Van Hellmond talked about how council gets loaded up with a lot of information in advance of the meeting, so it should naturally follow that a lot of minds are made up before the council meeting begins. That’s not to say our councillors’ minds are impermeable, but how often are they making up their minds at the very last minute though?
Making these decisions on heated issues is not like an awards show. We don’t have to wait until the envelope is opened before knowing the answer, so I encourage councillors to get engaged with citizens in advanced. Certainly people trying to galvanize public opposition to a decision don’t wait for the meeting day to give their outrage and disappointment voice, and councillors should think the same way. Is it not better to say, “Here’s the information we’ve received, here are my concerns, and here’s the decision I’m leaning towards?” Doing so is not the end of the discussion, it’s an invitation to a discussion, and it can only help facilitate a healthy exchange of ideas because, let’s face it, in the end the community still might not get the thing they want.
Look, you won’t find anyone more anti-car than me. Out and about I’m always a split hair from re-enacting Dustin Hoffman’s famous scene from Midnight Cowboy, when some driver turning a corner at St. George’s Square is being a little too aggressive. In a perfect world, we’d be making fewer accommodations for traffic, not less, but sometimes you’ve got to bow to reality. As nice as it would be to recall in 2016 the good old days when a one-lane bridge could accommodate all the traffic, the simple truth is that Niska is no longer a country road.
Saying that is probably not going to win me a lot of friends, but I can’t say I think the protests should stop either. If traffic is the concern, then work to create awareness and fight to minimize impact. Question the process if you like, continue to make your voice heard, but trying to take back decisions once they're made doesn’t serve progress, it stymies it.
This coming year, let’s keep in mind that as we try to talk to each other, we also have to listen, and that goes both ways. And if at all possible, let’s keep in mind that midnight madness is reserved for cult movies and clearance sales.