First published: July 28, 2005
Once again, residents of Northumberland County are under siege as politicians and school board trustees seem to be working overtime to reduce our democratic rights.
A new bylaw limiting delegations to Cobourg council is being considered, following an acrimonious battle over the Mr. Sub building proposed for King Street. Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner says he wants only one representative from each organization to speak in an effort to reduce repetitive presentations. He also wants people to request permission to appear before council 72 hours before a meeting and provide written presentations. Currently, the mayor can decide if a last minute delegation will be heard. The 10-minute limit on presentation will remain.
What is even more frightening took place just less than a month ago, when the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School board approved an overhaul to its school closure policy. With heartless precision, the board has developed a timeline and policies that drastically limit community participation to only three meetings and it is tightly controlled.
The closure process will driven by an Ad Hoc School Review Committee consisting of supervisors, trustees and member of the school council. Questions from the public are limited to the end of the agenda and there are only three meetings to review reports. One meeting will be an information session about the closure, leaving, in fact, only two chances for the public to have face-to-face debate. Any written submissions must be made a week before a meeting. And, the committee does not need to reply to any submissions or representation is writing or at all.
For parents of students are Merwin Greer or Grant Sine, this is nothing but bad news. Parents across the county could face the same hurdles. Now that the two schools in Cobourg are identified, the review committee must be established before the end of October. The meetings must be held before January, a mere two months for public input. Then the recommendation will go before the entire board by February and a decision rendered, according to a timeline within the policy.
Canadian political philosopher John Ralston Saul said, “Democracy is not intended to be efficient, linear, logical, cheap, the source of absolute truth, manned by angels, saints or virgins, profitable, the justification for any particular economic system, a simple matter of majority rule or for that matter a simple matter of majorities. Nor is it an administrative procedure, patriotic, a reflection of tribalism, a passive servant of either law or regulation, elegant or particularly charming. Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance. The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen.”
Any government or public institution’s legitimacy resides in its citizens. For them to function, it must engage residents properly and freely, not as a group of trained seals to do the bidding of the politicians or bureaucrats for a meager piece of fish as a reward. Often, those who champion democracy, point to our rights as voters to elect or throw out of office our politicians. But that is only a small part of the formula.
Politicians and trustees must take the time – all the time necessary – to hear what the public has to say, no matter how repetitive or crazy it sounds. And the limit on debate between citizens and those responsible cannot exist. Citizens have limited resources, not professional research staff, which are paid to devote countless hours to providing politicians and trustees with piles of reports and documentation to support them. It is far harder for taxpayers or parent’s groups to organize themselves to produce an efficient, thoughtful, well-research position. The cards are obviously stacked against the opposition to any issue.
But to make a democracy truly work, citizens must have influence. In other words, their input must be valued and acted on by those who were elected to serve. One of the reasons citizens don’t get more involved in local governance is the lack of trust. If they sign a petition or show up to a meeting, they are degraded and ignored. It is no wonder we see the same people trying to sway council. They are the only ones courageous enough to try.
The request for written submissions, while on the surface, sounds like a good idea, it is not. Citizens should be free to approach council in any manner. There should not be any burden to taxpayers or parents. Engaged politicians must make the effort to listen and ask questions. Invite speakers back or have staff interview them to seek clarification. The job of those elected is to serve not dictate. Besides, written submissions given bureaucrats and politicians ample opportunity to shoot down any arguments in advance rather than respond afterwards.
These are only two examples. Port Hope council has toyed with reducing its public participation recently and many councils do not give the public the respect or opportunity it deserves. One only need ask the residents of Shelter Valley to hear about the frustration of failing to be heard on an important issue like a gravel pit.
Mr. Spooner is already testing the waters for a potential run for the mayor’s job, talking with influential people in Cobourg. If he hopes to be successful, this kind of legislation is not bode well. School board trustee wanting to be re-elected should also be warned.
Both the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the Ministry of Education should investigate these new procedures. The Liberals promised a review of the Municipal Act and it should include changes to make the system far more publicly accountable than present, the goal of any government is to be open, transparent and democratic. Neither of these examples meets those minimal standards.