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OPINION: The bell tolls for the state of public participation

This week's Market Squared digs into the deeper meaning around the placement of an old bell
The old city hall bell was recently taken out of storage and put on display in the courtyard of the current city hall building.

You can spend every Tuesday at council for nearly a decade and still not speak with any authority about what issue will be the biggest point of contention. That’s why on Monday I would have laughed at the idea that this week’s committee of the whole meeting would have ground to a halt over the fate of a bell.

You may not be aware of this, but there was once a clock tower atop the old city hall building. As I’m writing this, I’m consulting an article on the Guelph Historical Society website written by a little-known local author named Leanne Caron (winky face emoji) about how the tower and bell were added in the 1850s, followed by an expansion of the tower to include the clock in the 1860s.

A century later, the tower was gone, and the clock and the bell were both put in mothballs. At least until this past summer when the bell was freed from its Raiders of the Lost Ark-like confinement in the city’s archives and was placed in the courtyard of the current city hall. The renovations to the courtyard, including the bell, were apparently completed just days before the committee meeting this week.

It was the same Coun. Caron who authored that history of the bell that brought forward a motion to direct staff to come up with an appropriate 200th birthday plan for the clock and bell, but the majority of council shot down any consideration for the bell because it already has a new home in a space that the mayor himself described as a “public enough area”.

Of course, the bell is not in a public area. Yes, city hall is a public building, but the bell is hardly in a public area, let alone “public enough”. I defy anyone to walk up to the security desk and ask the guards there if they can be allowed through the two different locked doors to be able to see it.

This idea of “public enough” is at the heart of a trend I’ve been noting at city hall.

There’s a veneer that public business is “public enough”, meaning that they put on a show of transparency without ever having to take to heart any real public input. In an era of deeply-ingrained mistrust in institutions, this is a dangerous game being played and it’s eroding what trust is left between the community and its supposed leaders.

The bell is just the latest example. Staff thought it would be a pretty cool decoration for an area they almost exclusively themselves enjoy, and never once considered that the people might want to have a say. This is Guelph. You can’t drop a stick on the ground and come back to pick it up 60 years later without someone decrying the offense to a heritage asset.

Still, this is relatively small potatoes when you think about how transit staff presented a fully-formed and actionable fare strategy to city council before the Transit Advisory Committee got a chance to weigh in on the subject. That’s a big mistake if it was accidental, and it was a big F-you to the committee if it wasn’t. Changes that affect the system is the reason to have an advisory committee in the first place.

Early this year, I went to city hall to cover a workshop meeting where council was providing feedback about the new version of the Strategic Plan, and I foolishly thought that it would be in the council chamber. It wasn’t. The meeting was in one of the committee rooms at the back of the building, behind locked doors where no city council meeting should ever take place unless council’s in-camera.

And yes, the meeting was broadcast live online, but what if there was a problem with the connection? What if I’m someone that doesn’t have access to a computer or the internet?

The government should be tearing down barriers not putting them up, and when it comes to these workshop meetings, they’ve been restricted more and more to being strictly council and staff affairs. At these meetings there are no delegates and no correspondences, in other words, no public participation. Not to give anyone any ideas, but what’s the point of a public meeting without public participation?

I worry that this is a direction we’re going in. More and more matters of public scrutiny have been delegated to staff for them to exercise almost sole authority.

Too many reports of public interest are dumped on a city website that’s almost completely unusable if you’re looking for something specific, while physical copies with even the most basic information have been cut way back in the name of sparing budgets and the environment (and accidentally sparing access).

Perhaps the most egregious example of undemocratic action, the expansion of Strong Mayor Powers, was met with radio silence by a mayor who’s never met a microphone he didn’t like. As residents were concerned about the gross overreach of authority, Cam Guthrie had nothing to say, for days, even after appearing on stage at the announcement in Queen’s Park.  

Now I get it. The fact that democracy’s messy is not one of its selling points, but it’s even messier to live in a world where edicts come down and nobody feels like they were heard, and no one feels that their input was appreciated. Or worse still, decisions come down without any public input at all, which makes people feel like they were never valued in the first place.

That’s a lot to put on an old bell, and that’s a lot to put on staff who probably thought they were doing a mitzvah cleaning up a bit of Guelph history and bringing it out of cold storage, but it’s another warning sign on a darkening highway. Does community input matter? If it does, the City of Guelph needs to start making some serious changes to show that they feel like it does.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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