I recently watched the Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, which is about the “flat Earth” movement and those who support it.
I admit, I turned it on to have a laugh, and in the scenes where the one guy was becoming more of a celebrity in the movement and was accused by another guy of being a government plant, it delivered.
Still, one thing struck me while watching Behind the Curve. There was a scientist and professor who said that the great disappoint about flat Earthers was that these were potential scientists who had lost their way. Flat Earthers are inquisitive people, willing to test orthodoxy, and come up with some fairly impressive experiments to try and prove their hypotheses.
Of course in the movie, all their experiments end up proving the Earth is round, but they had good hustle, is what that scientist was saying.
I thought about this insight after Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, which was summed up nicely by the GuelphToday story with the headline, “Mayor bristles at 'continuing narrative' of 'diminished democracy' in Guelph.”
“I’m tired of being accused of diminished democracy when it’s anything but,” Cam Guthrie said mid-meeting.
“There’s nothing nefarious, nothing backhanded. Our staff is working amazingly on this kind of stuff,” he added, referring to the terms of reference to the new Natural Heritage Advisory Committee.
No one likes being accused of undermining democracy, even the guys actually undermining democracy, but our system is built on the idea that we should have a healthy skepticism of power, and those with it.
So where’s the fine line? As with most things, appearance is everything.
It may not necessarily be “nefarious” to say that a board or committee will not have a provision that allows delegations, and it’s also correct to say that there are many local boards and advisory committees that presently don’t allow for delegations even though those meetings are public.
For staff to say that this is standard operating procedure is all well and good, but to say that this is a small group of people making a fuss, and is no big deal, is to ignore the future scenario where an issue catches community attention, which will then turn to anger when they find out that they have no recourse to complain.
At the same time, there are some advisory committees that attract people eager to enact change but end up turning those people off participating because they feel like they’re only part of a committee to offer the veneer of transparency. Mostly, some people feel like they’re there for staff to report to them, and not vice versa.
In the study of why conspiracies about the ‘Deep State’ or ‘QAnon’ take hold, it often comes down to a feeling of powerlessness in the believer’s own life. To phrase this locally, it’s easy for people to believe that the City is acting nefariously because they feel like the wheels of power move without their input.
That’s why I would chastise the mayor for his (understandable) righteous anger, no one’s going to believe there’s nothing nefarious going on because Cam Guthrie says so.
This is a challenge on two levels. The City should always be looking at ways to make it easier to take part, but we also need more people willing to take part.
As noted during last year’s election, there’s a lot of armchair quarterbacking out there, but it also seems like there aren’t too many people who want to get out from behind the computer. I see so many news stories about council directions, or City actions where people snark, or rant, or complain bitterly about “stupid politicians wasting our tax money.”
These comments are often posted by people I never see delegating at meetings or taking part in town halls or workshops. Granted, the average person can’t be everywhere at every time, nor can they be well-versed on absolutely every issue, but democracy is a two-way street.
In other words, you’ve got to give a little to get a little.
Same goes for the City too because I’ve been a steady complainer about the need for more ease of access, and now I’ve got some help tilting at that windmill.
Councillor Bob Bell made a motion for staff to look at a way to allow people to sign up for a subscription that will send them an email when a council or committee agenda is posted. Is this really so hard a direction? Why is it so difficult for the City to make it easy to access basic meeting materials?
So no, there is no nefarious plot. There’s no Flat Earth. But it seems like we have a city full of inquisitive people, willing to test orthodoxy and work to make things better. In other words, why doesn’t the City try and make them participants?