The revolution comes every day at local level

Local businessman and former municipal candidate Manfred Schumann is a prolific letter writer in Northumberland Today. A recent letter critiquing a column led to a letter to the editor responding to his comments. Journalism is meant to be a conversation in the 21st Century. No longer should journalists sit quietly on the side while the public hurls criticism or praise. Instead, we are encouraged to engage the public in discourse.

Here is my response:

Northumberland Today

July 12, 2010

Dear Editor

It is with great delight I see Manfred Schumann targeted my recent column (How long will Northumberland residents put up with being frustrated, ignored? June 30, 2010) in a letter to the editor (The Time for Revolting comes like Clockwork July 12, 2010).

I welcome the opportunity to engage him in a public discussion.

There seems to be some confusion over what I was trying to communicate, so this is an opportunity to clarify some points.

I understand words like subjugation and repression are not normally words used by most people to describe local municipal politics. And yet, these are most appropriate. As Webster’s Dictionary defines subjugate as making someone or something subordinate. Repression is the restraint or prevention of the expression of ideas or feelings.

One only needs to watch council  proceedings in any of the local municipalities to find examples of these efforts. The list is far too long to outline here. However, the infamous “Boys Club” on Cobourg council is a prime example as many councillors and members of the public are virtually ignored when speaking. Mr. Schumann, himself, has on occasion tried to proffer ideas and suggestions, yet how many have been acted upon. So, it is unclear why he wants to take on this point, when the evidence is so obvious. Mr. Schumann uses his rhetorical  flourishes to diminish the point by trying to argue this is not always the case and there are exceptions. The response is simply to say he is right, as I am. But, so what? The overall impression is not one of openness and accessibility, let alone being proactive on citizen input. Ask anyone who has come before any local council or institutional board in Northumberland and the majority will agree.

Where Mr. Schumann and I seem to diverge is in our view of democracy. It appears Mr. Schumann is one who believes the only time citizens have input into the system is during an election. This is known in political science as a representative form since we elect representatives to go off and do political work with little or no input from citizenry. It is an elitist system and concentrates power at the top of a hierarchy.

The problem with this system is that things change and unexpected issues arise. Under a representative form of democracy, it is left up to elected officials to solve these problems and citizens are left to sit on the sidelines or participate in meaningless consultations, which act mostly as political theatre rather than a genuine attempts to get input.

However, there are other forms of democracy. In particular, participatory forms, which is the one advocated in the column, where political representatives act in a consultative fashion building consensus to address issues. It is a far more complex system and takes more energy and effort from bureaucrats and politicians.

The trouble with this system is citizens can be too busy with every day life to be involved in every aspect of governance. And nobody cares about every single issue. One great approach to this is deliberative democracy, as put forward by experts like Amy Gutmann. Here participation is done in a manner that engages people in very specific issues that they are most concerned about as equals in an effort to carefully build a consensus.

Mr. Schumann’s defence of local councillors is weak and apologetic. To say circumstances outweighs politician’s failure to properly respond to citizens is ridiculous. What circumstances forced council to build the Frink (ice rink/fountain) in the harbour, when so many people objected. Or what about Port Hope council’s decision to buy a 19-acre lot for a business park.  Councillors acted on their own and ignored the input, not taking one second to explain or provide context for their decisions other than the fact that we must trust they are working on our behalf. Where is the accountability in this system? There is none.

The autonomy Mr. Schumann requests is the very thing we should oppose. It assumes the political elite know more and can act on our behalf. Yet, with the proper information, a transparent system and empathetic leaders who are truly interested in building consensus our community, I would prefer the latter.

And, when politicians and bureaucrats fail to do this, expect people to get really angry. Just look at the recent actions of the Northumberland Hills Hospital Board to see all of this played out.

Finally, the revolution does not come every four years. It is every day. Elections cannot be the one and only time citizens are empowered. There are many tools available and we see them used regularly. And despite the best efforts of the municipal elite to squash the efforts of good people, this fight should never stop — despite the Mr. Schumann’s of the world who would have otherwise.