With another election campaign upon us, talk has come up about the urban-suburban political divide. Actually, that discussion hasn’t really let up much during the past 4 years. OK. We’ve never stopped talking about.
Greater minds than ours here have contemplated how to bridge the gap. There’s been an emphasis on downtowners’ needing to try and understand the needs and aspirations of those living in places like Scarborough, York, North York, Etobicoke. While taking no issue with that line of reasoning I do think there’s something else at work too, something that tosses the ball back into the court of suburban residents.
Meeting and chatting with city council candidates running for office this year, a theme that keeps coming up almost unanimously with them is that of disengagement. Not just in the sense of disengaged voters but between people and those they’ve elected to represent them at City Hall. Councillors simply not getting out and interacting with their communities, keeping them informed of what’s happening in neighbourhoods in the ward or seeking feedback and input from their residents.
In Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 6, Ward 7, Ward 12, Ward 17, Ward 24, Ward 34, Ward 35, Ward 44, it’s been pretty much the same sense from candidates out on the campaign trail. People never hear from their councillors except at election time. Townhall meetings are few and far between, even on matters as important as the annual city budget. Some voters, having voted in 2010, can’t even remember their councillor’s name.
Ward 3 Etobicoke Center where Peter Fenech is running is another suburban case in point. The long time fiefdom of former councillor (and Etobicoke mayor) Doug Holyday has been Fenech’s home for the past 7 years and he attests to little presence from the councillor there. It’s hardly surprising. Holyday was known almost exclusively for his tight-fisted ways and hate for government spending. He boasted regularly of the small amounts of his office budget spent, suggesting he spent little time on community or resident outreach.
Fenech sees apathy when he’s out knocking on doors. If no one’s been consciously representing the views or seeking the opinions of residents, where’s the connection to City Hall? There’s one residents association in Ward 3, according to Fenech. When he travels around the rest of the city especially downtown, he sees community movie night, BBQs. There are few community movie nights or BBQs in Ward 3.
The biggest waste of communal space in Ward 3 to Fenech’s mind is Centennial Park. It’s a big park, for those of you who’ve never been there. But as we drove around it, Fenech pointed out the lack of connectivity through it, to it. Public transit skirts around part of the park’s perimeter. There are parking lots throughout it. There’s just no flow.
In fact while we were there, a car pulled up beside us and asked directions to the splash pad. The lack of signage is notable. The park doesn’t seem to draw people into it. It simply just is.
“Policy Over Politics” is Peter Fenech’s campaign slogan. It’s on the button he sports. Let’s take it one step further. Ideas Over Ideology. I’d argue that places like Etobicoke (and Scarborough and North York and York) have stunted civic engagement with a history of electing hidebound ideologues who believe the only purpose of a city councillor is to keep taxes low and spending to the barest of bare minimums.
This isn’t to suggest that a new voice like Peter Fenech is some crazy spendthrift left winger. He isn’t but you don’t have to be and still be able to say, “There’s always a way to fund things that matter.” It’s about encouraging possibilities not limiting them.
As almost every candidate out knocking on doors has told me, the two biggest concerns residents have about the current state of affairs municipally are transit and infrastructure. Like many suburban wards in the city, Ward 3 is heavily dependent on bus service. Cuts to that service result in increased commute times. Fenech would also push for the westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown, right out to Pearson airport. Ward 3, like much of Etobicoke, was hit hard by last year’s flood and ice storm. The need for improved and updated infrastructure is self-evident.
Transit and infrastructure. Those things cost money. Money comes from taxes. It’s a basic, incontrovertible equation.
Saying so doesn’t make a candidate like Peter Fenech anything other than responsive to what he’s hearing from residents in Ward 3. Above all else, what seems to be driving him to run in this race is a desire to begin including the voices of constituents, to engage them, give them a voice rather than just speaking for them. His campaign website undergoes regular adaptation and revision based on the input he’s receiving from residents.
There is no one way to overcome what, at times, seems like an intractable divide between downtown and the suburbs, but it would certainly help if City Hall was filled with more councillors from the suburbs like Peter Fenech. Not because they’re just like us downtowners or think just like us downtowners but because they want to bring a real sense of civic engagement with them. They want their residents to be a part of the process, to contribute to the important decisions that get made which affect all of us.
By bridging that gulf between constituents and their councillors, the one that leaves many voters wondering what their councillor actually does for them, it will help stitch the wider divide plaguing the city. City Hall won’t exist at such a distance from them, regardless of where they live.
— helpfully submitted by Cityslikr