Opinion

Into a Mirror, Darkly?...Or Twin Siblings of Different Mothers

A feeling of helplessness pervaded the goings-on at both the general issues committee and the NEN meeting. Perhaps Council feels just as beleaguered and handicapped as residents consistently do.

By M Adrian Brassington
Published September 14, 2011

Yesterday I had a two experiences that bookended an epiphany of sorts.

My day began with the General Issues Committee (GIC) meeting at City Hall dealing with the Pan Am Games velodrome. At the end of the day, I attended the North End Neighbours (NEN) meeting dealing with the apparent about-face that Council has executed regarding the basis of 'Setting Sail'.

At the centre was the challenge of how to gain a better sense of equilibrium in local governance, because clearly, people aren't chock full of confidence in either the process in general or their elected officials specifically.

In the background are my ongoing efforts to get Town Halls Hamilton into motion, which is predicated on the need for more public 'ownership' of the goings-on in local governance by way of 'increasing the relationship of engagement between residents and their Councillors.

Finding motivation for this is not a problem these days: this Barton-Tiffany 'Setting Sail' shift, the velodrome kerfuffle, Mayor Bratina's bewildering deportment and management style, the Mac/BOE development, HECFI... even the Pan Am Stadium site-selection process.

I love synchronicity. I love serendipity. I love watching something unfold organically. And yesterday, each interlude held sufficient independent substance to be a standalone, yet contributed something to the greater whole, a whole that comes down to two parties peering into the same looking glass, but currently incapable of seeing what's actually there.

Velodrome Meeting

This GIC meeting was a follow-up to the one on August 29th, to which I posted my reactions here.

Three gods of Canadian cycling made presentations - Curt Harnett, Gord Singleton and Steve Bauer, as well as Andrew Iler, Rob Good (from Forest City Velodrome in London, ON) and local businessman, entrepreneur and Hamilton champion Mark Chamberlain.

As much as I appreciated the presentations and the sentiments and the consistent level of passions, what struck me the most was how off-the-rails this Pan Am Games velodrome process seems to have gone.

I'm not going to get into the particulars, I'm not going to call any particular Councillor (or member of Council) out onto the carpet because I'm not here to flay anyone. But I will say this: I've witnessed - again, seemingly - how so much of what's been revealed over the past two+ weeks comes across as being a) bass-ackwards, b) the apogee of ill-preparedness and c) illustrative of the current tendency for Council to have either the rules of the endeavour changed on them, or the very playing field shifted when they've turned away momentarily to address other City business.

Barton-Tiffany

At the end of the day, I attended the 'information session and public meeting' at the Workers' Art and Heritage Centre presented by NEN. Turnout was so good that the start of the event was delayed so that they could properly seat people.

Once underway, Shawn Selway ably provided a brief-but-effective slide presentation providing a history of Setting Sail, an update on how the city seems to have reversed its decision, as well as passing two motions in response to the development, one to the OMB, the other to City Council.

As Sheri Selway puts it in her RTH article:

in July 2011, the lawyer for NEN was advised that the City had changed its mind. Without public consultation, the city wants to change the zoning of about half the land to commercial to settle with CN without another OMB hearing. This decision by the City would make a very large piece of land in Barton-Tiffany off limits for residential uses. This is a major change to the Setting Sail Secondary Plan - yet the City maintains there is no need to have a public discussion. We do not agree. Residential intensification is a major, city-wide issue and is crucial to the future of central Hamilton.

It was heartening to be among a group of people trying to react in a constructive way to an apparent setback, especially after so long a period of time of consultation.

The room was teeming with energy and emotions: frustration, anger, betrayal, a little incredulity...and no small amount of unfettered cynicism. I kept wondering how Councillor Farr would respond were he suddenly parachuted in.

I kept my mouth shut when people were - rhetorically or not - calling out, looking around asking 'What can we do?!?' For me, the answer was clear, the one that watching the GIC meeting elicited, the self-same one that my coffee chat had reinforced: town hall meetings.

Us and Them

Now, I know what I'm about to say may strike the über-cynical as being preposterous; so be it. But I'm beginning to wonder if Council feels, in many instances, just as beleaguered and handicapped as residents consistently do.

For different reasons, to be sure, and from different sources. In the end, despite my admonitions to the contrary, maybe it is a question of 'Us vs Them'. But the 'Them' isn't quite who the average cynical Hamiltonian might crave it be.

Last week, an especially ardent senior resident told me, "What you're proposing with town halls won't work. There is only one solution!" Naturally, I waited with raised eyebrows the delivery of his wisdom. "We need a strong mayor with a small group of strong Councillors to rid us of the damnable bureaucracy that plagues this city!"

Maybe so.

It was suggested at the NEN meeting that there is much 'questionable' activity going on at City Hall, and that the hopes and dreams of everyone in the room were, in fact, DOA.

Perhaps.

Beyond Helplessness

A feeling of helplessness pervaded the goings-on at both the GIC and the NEN meetings. To me, this suggests that with both parties not really working together (Council and residents), not only is nobody getting done what could be done, but because of this non-relationship, each are acting out their badly-written parts independently, and in isolation.

The result is a saddening, maddening mess with little or no synchronicity and hardly any positive interplay at all.

To change this, Councillors need to go through a transformation in how they see their constituents' roles, and constituents need to do the same.

Isolation must end. Bad communication or a complete dearth of it must end. We need to create a new landscape where transparency and accountability is met with participation and involvement - with engagement.

In order for the people to get to the point where informed, qualified opinions run rife, there has to be genuine openness, dialogue, authentic collaboration.

If nothing else, yesterday's interludes confirmed this truth to me. And that's not such a bad thing to get from an exhausting day, is it?

M Adrian Brassington is a Hamilton writer.

12 Comments

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted September 14, 2011 at 18:42:54

Please excuse me if I have completely misunderstood your experience and the resulting article, but it seems like you went into the GIC meeting and the NEN meeting with and agenda and a solution and learned little from what people were saying. If we (citizens and councillors) have an information problem that is affecting the ability of our elected officials to enact long standing plans, then it means someone is changing the plan behind the scenes. If council is not aware of changes (until some late Friday e-mail or the next meeting) and citizens don't know how they came about, how is a town hall meeting going to change that? Will the person responsible (staffer, manager, mayor) for the new policy actually attend the meeting? The city consults the public throughout planning processes and then seems to have no problem tossing out the public input and creating policy ad hoc.

I'm not sure if this article is vague or just naive.

I am not intending to be glib or insulting with this comment. It's just that I have been at sea with the byzantine leadership of late and this article has shed no real light on the informational structure or how a meeting will solve it.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted September 15, 2011 at 10:15:25 in reply to Comment 69637

Please excuse me if I have completely misunderstood your experience and the resulting article, but it seems like you went into the GIC meeting and the NEN meeting with and agenda and a solution and learned little from what people were saying.

1) I absolutely, positively have an agenda. I want a better level of engagement, I want a better level of discourse and debate.

http://townhallshamilton.blogspot.com/20...

2) I learned a ton from what people were saying in both instances. In fact, what I learned was broadcast at a high decibel and retention level.

If we (citizens and councillors) have an information problem that is affecting the ability of our elected officials to enact long standing plans, then it means someone is changing the plan behind the scenes. If council is not aware of changes (until some late Friday e-mail or the next meeting) and citizens don't know how they came about, how is a town hall meeting going to change that?

One of the understandable reactions I've received since pushing this initiative is that people want an 'A leads directly to B' solution. And that's not what town halls are. Frankly, this solution doesn't exist. Not even if you vote in the most amazing, saviour-figure imaginable.

One town hall meeting won't change much. But I've never suggested it would. I'm talking about each ward having regular town halls. By 'regular', I mean bi-monthly, or whatever seems appropriate. And in the long run, it 'changes' things by changing the dynamic, by changing one side of this local governance formula.

Regular engagement supports transparency and accountability, two elements that even people who don't want to 'get involved' are adamant that they expect from their Council. Right now, to a great extent, Council works in isolation. Always has. But even in the simplest way, that world cannot continue, if only because of the powerful changed the medium we're connected to has effected.

Will the person responsible (staffer, manager, mayor) for the new policy actually attend the meeting?

Nobody can be mandated to attend town hall meetings. In my envisioning, these meetings are primarily developed and presented from energies generated by neighbourhood and community associations in concert with other community and media entities. But if you can accept the fact that if town halls become a part of 'standard operating procedure' then everything changes (and I understand that some can't, and moreover some won't) and included in this change is the fact that to a great extent, there'd be no choice.

Look; right now, on the 'Civic Engagement Continuum' I linked to, we're nowhere near the 'ideal, best circumstances' end. So if that's the case, and we keep coming up with all these less-than-savoury situations, why don't we give what we're proposing a try?

It's just that I have been at sea with the byzantine leadership of late and this article has shed no real light on the informational structure or how a meeting will solve it.

LOL Sorry, but at times, this cynicism is a bit too perversely funny. I was never trying to 'shed light on the informational structure'. Most of this material is on the site for all to consider at their leisure...as is 'how a meeting will solve it'. This article was merely a rumination on the fact that we have two groups who are, in many ways, handicapped in similar ways. That's all.

But I do want to reiterate: I'm not talking about ONE meeting. Never have. That would be as arrogant and misguided...and yes, naïve as assuming that a floundering marriage can be 'rescued' with one counselling session. As the wise man said, 'I may have been born at night, but not last night.'

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By drb (registered) - website | Posted September 15, 2011 at 11:33:12 in reply to Comment 69658

Don't get me wrong. I support the Town Hall Meeting model. I have been lucky enough to have a councillor who uses them in a number of ways (informational, community input on policy, local conflict resolution, visioning.) I have attended many of these meetings and found them valuable. My issue with your article is not the concept of the meetings, but rather the examples you chose (GIC and NEN), the issues they were dealing with, and that you didn't really illuminate how Town Hall meetings would make the yawning gap between coucil (policy makers), City Staff (policy enacters, and lately policy makers) and the community any closer.

My criticisms are more about the lack of clarity in your writing than about your passion for changing this city. Believe me. I have been trying to affect change in my own little way for a long time.

PS: Don't laugh at my cynicism, it's hard won, and in no way is it malaise. I won't quit this town.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted September 14, 2011 at 22:44:00

"We need a strong mayor with a small group of strong Councillors to rid us of the damnable bureaucracy that plagues this city!"

I think he hit the nail right on the head. The city bureaucracy were the ones who dropped the sudden Velodrome price bomb on council. The city bureaucracy produced the boondongle of LRT costs/research that seems to have gone nowhere, even though much of the costs and research has appeared on this very site from my understanding. The city bureaucracy is at least partially responsible for the lack of emphasis being put on Hamilton's infrastructure dilemmas. The city bureaucracy is responsible for the red tape that closed our one hostel. The city bureaucracy is responsible for the asinine enforcement regarding the Hamilton Grand sidewalk issue, and have now sent that project into limbo. The city bureaucracy is what nearly killed the Pearl Company. The city bureaucracy is what caused the Hamilton Farmers market controversies. HECFI itself seems to have been an extension of the city bureaucracy and we all saw how well that went.

Seriously, a shakeup is needed and I want to see a mayoral candidate who is going to make it his mission to take aim at cleaning up the bureaucracy of Hamilton.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted September 15, 2011 at 08:11:25

I think I can see where mystoneycreek is coming from in his article.

Seriously though, I believe the town hall initiative is a good thing, IT just has to evolve into something a little more sexy for folks to become actively involved. Which brings me to a point - INVOLVEMENT.

I personally find activity to be more engaging, rewarding and satisfying than just plain sitting and listening and Matt Jelly's Crawls were just such a thing.

What I find disappointing about MSC's town hall initiative is the fact that he has ignored the providence of an altruistic opportunity:

For Feswick, his son's installations are about more than merely art. They're also a sign the building is starting to return to ITs roots as a gathering place, a hall built in 1879 to bring the community together for dances, concerts and town meetings.

"I would like to see the building have the same life as IT had when James Balfour originally designed IT, which would be for performance space and public use. So I want the public to get back in here to use IT," says Feswick.

"For a number of years, this building wasn't being used at all. Now I'd like to get IT back into the hands of the public and I don’t want to wait two years to do that. I want IT to start immediately...That’s my dream." [Emphasis Added]

So until such a thing exists once again, I'll just rock with the rebels at a Steve Sinnicks jam.

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2011-09-15 08:51:14

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted September 15, 2011 at 09:56:23 in reply to Comment 69646

What I find disappointing about MSC's town hall initiative is the fact that he has ignored the providence of an altruistic opportunity:

For the record, I've been in touch with Jeff, and am looking forward to talking with him about the town halls initiative over coffee soon.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted September 15, 2011 at 11:13:53

I'm gonna jump into this one a little late, and note a couple of observations:

(1) If one thing seems clear about reaction to MSC's TownHalls concept, it's that it is tentative. If my quick reading of the comment scores is accurate (zeroes votes? when does that ever happen?), it doesn't appear that there's any great opposition to it, only that caution is holding people back from actively supporting it. Why?

(2) Because it's a mighty tall order to organize, publicize, and ultimately pull-off. Not that it's impossible, only that larger groups with greater organizational history and capacity haven't really managed anything like it in my memory. It's not a one-off meeting MSC is proposing: it's a movement, reliant and sustained on citizen interest and involvement.

So I think it's fair that citizens might ask, "Where's the beef?" (not the best metaphor, but it'll work)

With biographical availability being the way it is (everyone already has lives, interests, commitments up the wazoo), I think it's perfectly understandable that there's been a withholding of general support until that delicious beef is located.

(3) So IMHO, the initial steps in pitching this idea to the wider citizenry are: a) having a small group of people actually piloting a townhall in a ward or neighbourhood; b) successfully pulling it off; c) demonstrating that it's a simple enough model to be replicated elsewhere; and, d) it pays dividends to organizers and participants.

(4) Though I definitely don't need another steak on my plate, I am game for making whatever small contribution I can to see what can be accomplished with a small-group/low-resource model of community organizing.

(5) Lastly, I'm curious: what is this calling-out of Ryan on endorsement (if I'm reading that right)?

I have the utmost respect for the guy who gives us a valuable forum for civic discussion, but why do you feel that TH organizing is contingent on his blessing? RTH is populated by a lot of independent, strong-minded people. I don't get the feeling that public opinion here falls into place that way, even if Ryan was interested in steering it...

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted September 15, 2011 at 20:39:10

Here is Bratina's take on your town hall.

The mayor is back on the airwaves

Matt Jelley called it Hamilton's State Television on facebook. The show staff are John Best former CHCH news executive and current Bay Observer editor, Peggy Chapman from Bratina's office and Jason Farr's political staffer Mike Camereon.

Choice quote from the article:

"Chapman, Best and the mayor will choose the topics of discussion for the first 15 minutes of the show, with the host playing “a good devil’s advocate,” Cameron said.

The mayor’s chief of staff will screen incoming calls. Cameron said he doesn’t consider that a conflict, adding he will oversee the show as executive producer. He doesn’t expect any complaints about objectivity."

God help us.

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By fanofmcgreal (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2011 at 11:18:01

why are you making out Ryan as an enemy of your townhall concept? Just go and have them - it shouldn't matter if Ryan or anyone else doesn't think it is a good idea. Your wasting your time here trying to convince people to get engaged - most on here already are.

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