Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Representative democracy, public participation and social media

There was an interesting controversy in Waterloo this week. A city councillor, while sitting in Council listening to a delegation of residents who were concerned about a proposed development in their neighborhood, tweeted disparaging things about the delegation. The residents filed a complaint with the city integrity commissioner, who cleared the councillor of wrongdoing on the grounds that the tweets were ambiguous.

The delegation was from an upscale part of town and the issue was a townhouse development planned for their neighborhood. The Councillor’s tweets, apparently sent while the delegation was speaking, were:

“I am aghast. Embarrassed. Furious. #not impressed #this is not my Waterloo.”

“About to revisit my prairie girl roots, connect with Tommy Douglas and share some very honest and blunt thoughts about community.”

(The Councillor’s attempt at populist bonding seems a little weird, at best. Some quick Google searches show that she lives in a posh neighborhood with house prices comparable to the delegation's - and no townhouses. But that’s another issue.)

As someone who has made a number of delegations to local government, both at public Council meetings and in private, I know how difficult it is to provide input when you know the government official has already made up their mind. But I’ve been lucky – I have never been in the position of arguing a case before an official who sneers at my arguments just because of who I am or where I come from.

I also know how difficult it is to participate in local government. Despite calls for public involvement, transparency, and so on, Waterloo government appears to most of us as a cliquey group that is not very receptive to outsiders (even though the “outsiders” are local residents). City Council invites the public to participate on committees, but they renew membership every year and boot you off if they decide you’re too controversial. Councillors will let you tell them your concerns, but few of them (I exclude our current mayor) give the impression that their minds are at all open.

Now it seems that the situation is worse. This event – and the exoneration of the tweeter, and her declaration that she won’t change – paints a picture of City Hall as a place where councillors are playground bullies who will use their stature to publicly humiliate us if we have the temerity to say something they disagree with.

An editorial on the tweeting scandal argues that the problem is not what the Councillor said, but the fact that she tweeted during a meeting. I disagree. It was disrespectful of her to not at least hear them out, but her tweets expose her attitude - that she was never willing to give them a chance because "they're rich" - and I'm glad that's public. If it's not public, we can't deal with it.

Tweeting increases transparency, and that's a good thing. Transparency isn't easy - it can uncover some rotten stuff - and we need to look at addressing those issues. I also hope we can discourge this sort of political grandstanding.

What we need is an enhanced - or at least reaffirmed - code of conduct for city councillors that reinforces their obligation to treat the public in a respectful manner and truly engage them.



Chairman Wow said...

Seems to me that her comments weren't against "the rich," but were actually calling into question the sense of entitlement felt by many citizens in our community to live in an ossified space where regulation is designed to serve special interests rather than protect and fairly allocate the commonweal. The unhappy citizens aren't angry because of her tweets, they're angry because they didn't get their way - and that's not supposed to happen to them.

Yappa said...

Hi Chairman Wow -

It seems pretty clear that the source of outrage for both her and you is that they are "rich". If residents in a poor neighborhood went to Council to protest a development in their backyard, I don't think it would have provoked such a rant. And a large percentage of delegations to our Council are about things that affect people directly; people in agreement with the delegations would call them an engaged and caring public, and people in disagreement would call them NIMBYs.

I'm a bit uncomfortable with this designation of the neighborhood as rich, in any event... it has a certain cachet in Waterloo but most houses there are lower priced than many of our new subdivisions.

I'm a proponent of mixed neighborhoods for sure, but I don't see that as the issue here. This is about how government officials treat their constituents, and it's important.

Anonymous said...

Yes, our city officials are a disgrace.

You are quite correct that it is not about the rights and wrongs of the housing - I generally like the idea of mixed housing areas and I suspect that the Beechwood residents should "suck it up", but I don't know all the facts, and they have a right to their say. But regardless, the issue here is the attitude of the politician(s) and bureaucrats.

It is the same as the mind-made-up-already LRT decision. Never mind almost none of us will use it, and it will cost each household $10,000 (my approximate lifetime estimate).

This is Bully Bureaucracy. Socialism fused with Crony Capitalism. Liberal Facism.

One day, I hope nicer people will be elected instead.