Civic Engagement Is A Daily Thing

February 4, 2014

“A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.”

attributed to Horace Mann, American educational reformer, among other things.

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Point 6. (A recap of points 1-5)

We have been reduced in the democratic equation of late to two points of civic participation. Paying taxes and voting every 4 years (or whenever governments of the day deem absolutely necessary). Outside of that, it’s all, keep on moving, folks. Nothing to see here.

Just such an attitude has been on ample display in Toronto since 2010 where all we’ve heard about is the ‘mandate’. Through divisive service and programs cuts and subway debates to crack and drunken stupor scandals, we’ve been told a certain someone was given a mandate. You can’t challenge the mandate! Not until the next election. nowrunalongDecisions are only made at election time. You don’t like what’s going on in the interim? Vote your displeasure next election.

To contest the mandate is to be a usual suspect. Some sort of elitist, still bitter over losing in 2010, with no job and lots of free time to hang around City Hall, getting all snarky. Hard working tax payers know their place when it comes to governance. In the polling booth. Every 4 years.

If I’m trying to be even-handed here, such disengagement is not specific to this administration. Too many of us (save a band of dedicated city advocates) during the Miller era were lazy, with our heads buried or looking the other way. We assumed Toronto was in good hands and stood on the sidelines instead of pitching in and contributing. It left some of the accomplishments vulnerable to a tax-and-spend counter-attack. Exhibit A, Transit City.

In 2014, candidates need to encourage people not only to help elect them but to continue on in helping them govern once elected. peskyflyVictory (or defeat for that matter) should not end at the ballot box. What you hear in line at Tim Horton’s does not constitute civic engagement.

Much more than the other two levels of government, the municipal level offers up a grand opportunity for more hands-on involvement by city-zens with the actual running of the city they live in. Anyone who wants to can get in there, get their hands dirty with governance. Attend meetings. Make deputations. Badger your local councillor directly. Mayor Ford has said he is accessible 24/7, right?

Municipal government is where the rubber hits the road, as they say, they being people I can’t bother looking up to properly cite saying it.

Of course, much could be done to further strengthen and deepen civic engagement. There’s a grassroots movement afoot for something called participatory budgeting. Small slivers of a city’s budget portioned off to be decided upon and spent directly at the community level. “Creating a more educated platform of voters overall,” says PGP volunteer facilitator, Christine Petro. “So I think this can only be good for the big project of democracy.”

Perhaps more radical still would be an idea to empower citizens at the community council level. Give them more than simply input. getyourhandsdirtyMake people decide on and be responsible for certain local issues throughout the city. Instead of simple an advisory position make room for actual governing.

Hey, hey.

That’s what elections are for, pallie. The people decide who governs them. Then we go home, watch the Leafs and do it all over again in 4 years time. Anything more than that would be pure… chaos.

Maybe.

But even if that were the case, it would be preferable to the democratic somnolence that has crept up on the citizenry at every level of government. The trend with voter turnout continues to point downward. Disengagement smacks of disillusionment.

That void is then filled with real special interests, not the pretend ones imagined by politicians who see any opposition as undemocratic and unsavoury. Participation and engagement beyond simply voting and tax paying amounts to vigilance. No one politician should be expected to keep democracy healthy and vibrant. Nor 45 for that matter, for a city of over 2.5 million residents with a multitude of needs and opinions.fordnation

For nearly 4 years now, Toronto has been bludgeoned with this idea of a manufactured ‘Nation’ that manifested its will back in 2010 and will do so again this October if need be.

My question is, where exactly has that ‘Nation’ been when every single decision has been made affecting them, every month at every council meeting? Where are they when matters are getting hashed out at committee meetings? Where is that nation when the heavy lifting of daily governance is going on?

Politicians only looking for civic engagement every four years aren’t really comfortable with democracy. Their preference is for more of a don’t call us, we’ll call you kind of arrangement. Give us power, stand back and we’ll take it from here.

That’s not engagement so much as it is honorary ceremonial status.  The flag waver at a car race. The bottle smasher at a boat launch.

If you’re only expected to pay attention once every four years, it’s ultimately difficult to muster much enthusiasm for it.

hopefully submitted  by Cityslikr


Shut It Down Frank

December 3, 2013

There was a certain lack of urgency in the air in committee room 1 for the public deputations ahead of the 2014 budget, grityourteetchandcarryonboth perplexing as well as unsurprising.

Clearly there’s a crush of need in many sectors of city services and programs after years of cutbacks, flat lining and neglect by all three levels of government. Where that fact was on stark display these past two days was in child care and children’s nutritional programs. Oh, and the TTC. Always the TTC.

It is astounding to me the number of people out there filling in the gaps left by governments that, regardless of political stripe, seem to believe we are taxed enough. You can’t get blood from a stone, we’re told. Don’t look at us to be the heavies here. DIY. Do it yourself.

Many do, setting up things like breakfast programs with and/or without assistance from both the public and private sectors along with a healthy dose of volunteerism. And then they manage to take the time to come down to City Hall to express (almost exclusively) a discontent, let’s call it, with the contributions city council is making. For at least some 150 people or so who signed up to make deputations over the last couple days, democracy is much more than simply voting on election day.

I’m hoping what I perceived to be the deputants’ collective tone of quiet resolve wasn’t instead resignation in the face of just 3 years of constant beat down. admirationIt might be a product of sideshow freak fatigue, civic efforts in the face of a leaderless political entity trying to get back to business as usual. Who is it I’m addressing here?

Perhaps (and I could very well be projecting my own views onto this) there’s a sense out there that this is also very much a do nothing drastic, it’s an election year budget. Don’t rock the boat with any sudden change in direction and just get on with campaigning. Grit your teeth. Grin and bear it. Register your concern but no outrage. Next year will be an entirely different year.

The lack of, I don’t know, pressing engagement also might have been the result of the prevailing attitude from the budget committee members. With the exception of Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, it felt like the whole deputation process was an imposition upon the rest of them. disengagedAfter quickly passing a motion to reduce speaking time to 3 minutes, they followed up with a 1 minute limit for councillor’s questions that succeeded in impeding any sort of actual dialogue between residents and their elected representatives.

Then, the committee wanted to cut short Monday’s meeting back from its 930 p.m. scheduled end to 6 p.m., effectively eliminating any possibility for those who couldn’t make it to the meeting during work hours from deputing. Councillor Berardinetti initially beat back the motion but Councillor Doug Ford managed to have it pushed through later in the afternoon. Talk about your customer service.

Say what you will about former budget chief Mike Del Grande (and we said a lot, almost none of which was positive) but he at least seemed to revel in rubbing his opponents’ nose in the fact he was in charge of the city’s purse strings. Cupcake this, widows and orphans and he’d bang the gavel with relish. foghornleghornI want to listen to you beg and make a point of ignoring you.

This gang (again, I exclude Councillor Berardinetti from this broadside) couldn’t even bother mustering the pretense of interest. Councillor Ford, flitting in and out of the meeting, started almost every ‘question’ to deputants with a “Do you realize that…” before launching into whatever dubious claim or numbers he thought appropriate. Private sector this, find efficiencies that. Unsurprisingly, it was the lack of outdoor skating rinks IN SCARBOROUGH that grabbed his attention the most.

As for Councillor Frances Nunziata, if there is a more contemptible, less respectful councillor currently representing residents of Toronto, their name is Mike Del Grande and, well, see above. Nunziata wears a permanent sneer and spent more time on Monday watching the clock than listening to the deputations. “Frank! Frank!” she’d snap at the committee chair when he absent-mindedly or graciously allowed deputants to wrap up beyond the 3 minute mark. Her only interaction with the speakers who’d made the effort to come out was to ask if they’d looked elsewhere for help.

h/t Paisley Rae

h/t Paisley Rae

But there’d be problems with the deputation process even with a more crowd friendly committee. Unless you’re among the first 10 or so listed deputants, there’s too much uncertainty in your timing. People need to be assigned a block of time in which they know they’ll be speaking and the committee needs to stick to that. Otherwise, people just drift off, having to get back to work, to home, to pick up their kids from school. This usually precipitates a run of no-shows, leading to more no-shows by people who had been following along but hadn’t expected to be called on so soon.

More than that, the public needs to be invited to take part in the budget making decisions much earlier in the process. It’s hard not to conclude, as it works right now, that once we get to the staff proposed budget release it’s all a done deal. Months in the works, behind closed doors, it’s delivered up. A fait accompli. Here it is, boys and girls. What do you think of it?

In quick succession, just before Christmas, the public is offered a glimpse of what to expect, nowrunalonghave their say over the course of a couple days, and then it’s off to council to be voted on in late-January. Thanks for playing along. See you next year.

It gives the impression that we’re offered the chance to be heard but not listened to. This budget committee, this week, simply made what was a matter of fact painfully obvious.

openly submitted by Cityslikr


Disengage From Disengagement

August 13, 2013

The problem with democracy is elections.

Maybe I should re-phrase that.imdone

The problem with democracy is elections as markers for civic engagement. Voting every 4 years, give or take, represents the full extent of involvement in the democratic process. Politicians claim a mandate. You don’t like it? Well, vote them out next election.

Democracy becomes solely about elections not governing.

It’s easy for both sides of the equation, the electors and the elected. We voted. Our job’s done. They voted. Talk to you again in 4 years.

That’s not engagement. That’s advertising, really. Pick a product. Try it out. If you don’t like it, pick another.

That’s not participation. That’s shopping. productA consumer rather than a contributor.

I mull this over, having read through Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 tract, A Ladder of Citizen Participation. (h/t @elcostello and @HearsnMindsTO) While the language and 60s revolutionary sentiment comes across as somewhat dated, its take on civic engagement is wholly relevant. “There is a critical difference,” Arnstein wrote, “between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process.”

This goes beyond just voting. Here in Toronto over the course of the past three years, we have experienced a very real uptick in citizen participation. Remember that 24 hour+ public deputations at an Executive Committee meeting back in July 2011 in reaction to the proposed budget and service cuts? The first of many intense exchanges between the public and their elected representatives.

But is it anything more than ‘empty ritual’?deputations

There were certainly push backs on the 2012 budget with some $20 million restored to the budget on the council floor a few months later. Vocal citizen dissent hasn’t gone completely unheard in the halls of power but it’s been drowned out at times by the voices the mayor and his councillor-brother hear on the street and in Tim Horton’s. You could argue the administration’s been neutralized, its mandate for massive rollbacks has itself been rolled back to something of a standstill.

It would be difficult to deny, however, that the process is far from inclusive. In terms of something as important and vital as budgeting at the city level – more open and transparent than either the feds or province, mind you – citizen input is the last to be considered. The mayor and his budget chief demand on overall direction which staff, led by the city manager,deputation then shape into preliminary budget form. By that time, it is the document that has to be deviated from in terms of input by both city council and the general public.

Nothing’s set in stone but the tone is definitely established. It’s now all about asks and trade-offs instead of contributions and ideas that build the document from the ground up. The public doesn’t really participate in constructing a budget. It adds colour commentary.

Even something as open and ground floor-ish as the city’s Feeling Congested TO roll out, public consultations about transit expansion throughout the city and region, had something of a pre-packaged feel to it. Here are the choices we are giving you. What are your thoughts?

It was especially notable in the revenue tools part of the process. At the one public meeting I attended up in York this spring, an immediate question some in the crowd had for staff was about the absence of a corporate taxes box for them to check. We’d been given a whole host of revenue tools with which to generate the necessary money to build new transit but corporate taxation was off the table.pickone

Whose decision was that?

A good question that we should ask at every point of contact between the public and its elected officials. Whose decision was that? If the answer is, Yours, John Q. Public, when you voted me into office, we should start questioning just how vibrant and robust our democracy actually is.

In the comments section here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, it isn’t unusual to get the occasional response that basically suggests that if we think we’re such smarty-pants, why don’t we run for office. (Happened just this week, in fact.) As if that’s the only avenue of participation open to anyone. You’re either on the inside or you’re on the outside, looking in with no recourse other than trying to get inside.

Councillor Doug Ford exhibited that mentality back in 2011 when he got into a virtual spat with author Margaret Atwood over proposed library cuts. “Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected,” the councillor said. Until then, folks, let the politicians make all the decisions.

getinvolved

When engagement and participation end with the casting of a ballot, and only re-visited next election campaign, that’s the mere appearance of democracy. Citizen participation needs to be a full time gig. Otherwise politics simply gets left to the professionals and very few of us wind up happy with that state of affairs. That current state of affairs.

exhortingly submitted by Cityslikr


Our Money. Our Budget.

June 28, 2013

“…I might have some pool of funds somewhere that are hiding somewhere, I don’t know.

— Toronto Budget Chief Frank “Pockets” Di Giorgio, in response to the provincial announcement of a 3 year, $150 million phase out of pooling funds.

foundmoney

Well, since obviously just anybody can be the city’s budget chief overseeing a $10 billion or so annual operating budget, why not all of us?

A group calling itself Better Budget T.O. has come together, hosting an inaugural event last night at the Academy of the Impossible’s Campaign School. It is a nascent movement here that has taken root in other places like Calgary, New York City, South America with the intention of bringing about a more inclusive way of putting together the city’s budget. Participatory Budgeting. A grassroots approach that not only endeavours to de-mystify the budget process but to build political engagement at the community level.

While not perfect, the municipal level is a great place for the public to influence how tax dollars are spent. Federally, provincially, the budgets are delivered, largely sight unseen. Boom. Press lockdown. There you go. Locally, the process is much more public, coming together over a longer (albeit not long enough) process that begins in earnest in the fall and concludes at city council in mid-January.

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But as was pointed out last night, transparency does not automatically mean clarity. Sure, we can see but we’re not sure what we’re looking at. The budget can be intimidating. The numbers overwhelming. But people, trust me. If the likes of Councillor Frank Di Giorgio can be seriously considered capable of putting together Toronto’s budget, anyone can. And I mean anyone.

A Better Budget for a Better City, writes Lisa Marie Williams of the Wellesley Institute. As the mayor keeps telling us, it’s our money he’s fighting for. So let’s make sure it’s spent the way we want. Let’s truly make it our budget.

all-together-nowly submitted by Cityslikr