It’s time to update a piece I wrote in December, 2012, outlining the secret deals, backroom negotiations and “barbecue politics” that our council has been involved in since that date, more than a year ago.
So here comes the update, the emperor without his clothes:
- Secret meetings: none
- Backroom negotiations: none
- Barbecue deals: none
Sorry, I know this is a disappointment to local conspiracy theorists and bloggers, coming hard on the failure of the world to end as per the Mayan Calendar, or the failure of any number of predicted ends of the world, coupled with the lack of any substantial conspiracy proof against council despite dozens (hundreds?) of Freedom of Information Act requests filed (sorry if the clerk didn’t tell you what sort of lubricant one councillor uses on his chair, though…).
Aliens didn’t make contact in 2013. Bigfoot wasn’t found. Tom Cruise is still in Scientology. Stephen Harper didn’t quit politics and join a monastery. Council didn’t hold any secret meetings.
It was a tough year for psychics and conspiracy theorists alike.
Back at the end of 2012, I wrote:
I can only offer a glimmer of hope that we still have two years left to go, so there’s still a chance we might fail to live up to our oath of office in future. A slim chance, mind you, but those odds don’t stop people from buying lottery tickets.
I have to say, I don’t think it’s going to happen now. We’re sticking stubbornly to the oath. Not only that, we brought in an Integrity Commissioner to ensure the public knows we stay on the straight and narrow.
I also wrote then:
I understand that from the outside, it may look like we’re doing the double-double-toil-and-trouble routine in the “cone of silence” but all we were doing is just treading the slow path of bureaucracy and legality, under the watchful eyes of staff (who wield a rather mean Municipal Act when we stray). We call it “due diligence.”
Not to mention a rather stern CAO who has little tolerance for inappropriate behaviour by councillors, no matter how well-meaning.
Political conspiracy theories get spun by those who don’t participate in or understand how the process of governance works. And like all conspiracy theories ever coined, despite lack of proof, they keep resurfacing and circulating among people who are sure that their government – any level of government – is up to no good.
Clandestine meetings and secret deals are more exciting, more titillating to believe in than the rather pedestrian, but convoluted process of governance.
You think the truth is out there? The way to find out is to get involved. Working on a committee or sitting at the council table sure strips you of your illusions about government conspiracies. At the very least, sit down with someone who is involved and ask how things work.
Way back in 2008 (seems like an eternity ago), I wrote about the imagined “barbecue politics” conspiracy that the former mayor decried in the media:
“We’re having those awkward discussions in public,” said Mayor Carrier in a year-end interview published in the Enterprise-Bulletin, January 4, 2008, “whereas in the past a lot of it was maybe talked about at a barbecue, or talked about over a drink, or talked about moreso in a closed meeting.”
Closed meetings – in camera meetings – are strictly regulated by the Municipal Act. How and why you can leave the public eye, what can be discussed, and how you can resolve matters is clearly laid out. Staff are present at those meetings and ensure that council stays within the parameters. You can’t just go in camera to have “awkward” debates simply because you don’t want to do so in public.
That “awkward discussions” comment was in reference to a confrontational, angry council meeting last term; one of many in what some residents (and a few of the local media) saw as a dysfunctional council. But let’s let the past go. There’s no profit in recalling the bad.
Let’s celebrate the good. This current council is so much better, effective and much more positive. If we had a motto, it might be “Facta concordia crescit” – Achievements grow from togetherness (ignosce mihi for my poor Latin; I’m still learning…).
Certainly there were no such “barbecue” events; no secretive times and places where policies got decided out of the public eye that I was invited to attend as councillor. It’s a bit paranoid to imagine that’s how governments work. Most political activity is a molasses-slow slog through bureaucracy, process and procedure done under the lens of public and media scrutiny.
BBQs themselves are, of course, part of the political process in both federal and provincial levels: a chance for politicians to do the meet-n-greet routine with voters and supporters. Nothing improper about that. No conspiracies when the MP has a BBQ, eh?
Here, on the municipal level, they’re similarly public events, just like our pancake breakfasts or the M&M Meats BBQ. Hardly a place where policies are decided. And again, nothing improper occurred at any. Well, some pancakes may have suffered in the pouring, and I can’t vouch for the sausages, since I don’t eat mammals. But policy-wise: zilch happened.
Why anyone thinks that council members are engaged in secret meetings where we decide things outside the public sphere is beyond me. Who has the time? And in a small town, don’t you think someone would see us?
Of course, some councillors talk with each other, and talk with staff and residents too, about issues, events and policies. I have coffee with other council members now and then. We jaw about pretty much everything, from pets to politics. Do we decide policy? Hardly! It takes a majority of council to do that, and do it at the council table in public.
But yes, we sometimes discuss issues, agendas and goals.
Is it proper to do so? Absolutely!
Meeting and talking with one another not only normal, but is necessary. Humans have an innate need to communicate, to share, to socialize. Communicating with one another, with staff and with others makes us effective at the table.
We meet (or should – I can’t speak for other members) with residents, with developers, with parents, with neighbours, with friends, with co-workers, with staff, and sometimes with each other (but not in quorum-sized groups). That’s what we’re supposed to do. As long as we stay within the confines of the Municipal Act, it’s not only legal: it’s expected of us.
One can’t run a town in silence, without asking questions or discussing options. We were not elected to live under a cone of isolation until Monday nights and then to raise our hands to rubber stamp policies and bylaws crafted by staff.
We were elected to lead, to develop ideas and policies. We’re elected to question, to challenge and to decide. You can’t do that by yourself: you need input, feedback, criticism, ideas. Anyone who thinks he or she can govern in isolation is a proto-autocrat. And a suspicious one at that.*
The notion that council policies and directions are decided by an undisclosed elite at some secretive “barbecue” is not simply risible; it’s downright paranoid.
It’s easier and requires less cogitation to believe people are up to no good than to believe that they are working for the greater good and deciding what we sincerely believe is the best choice given all the information we have at hand. That sort of thinking doesn’t play well in the social media where anger, suspicion and vituperation reign.
Just because we didn’t vote the way someone outside council wanted or expected us to, doesn’t mean there was a conspiracy; doesn’t mean we didn’t weigh all the options; doesn’t mean we didn’t give the decision our fullest attention. And it doesn’t mean we decided it ahead of time with a wink and a handshake at some private barbecue.
So if you’re inclined to believe your council is engaged in secretive “barbecue politics” where policy is decided out of the public eye, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The others: rest assured: it’s just another conspiracy theory. Like chemtrails and the evils of vaccination. And we already have enough balderdash in our lives without another conspiracy theory.
I hope I will be able to update you again in 2015 with the same lack of news.
* PS. Here’s an interesting quote about conspiracy theorists:
To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance in instances when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory, in this sense, helps explain those ambiguities and ‘provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty’… In addition, it is also thought that conspiracy theories offer explanations of the world that are not contradicted by information available to adherents.
And this from an article in Slate:
…people who suspect conspiracies aren’t really skeptics. Like the rest of us, they’re selective doubters. They favor a worldview, which they uncritically defend. But their worldview isn’t about God, values, freedom, or equality. It’s about the omnipotence of elites…
The common thread between distrust and cynicism, as defined in these experiments, is a perception of bad character. More broadly, it’s a tendency to focus on intention and agency, rather than randomness or causal complexity. In extreme form, it can become paranoia. In mild form, it’s a common weakness known as the fundamental attribution error—ascribing others’ behavior to personality traits and objectives, forgetting the importance of situational factors and chance. Suspicion, imagination, and fantasy are closely related.
The more you see the world this way—full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence—the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once you buy into the first theory, with its premises of coordination, efficacy, and secrecy, the next seems that much more plausible.
Conspiracy theorists might take a page from this how-to article in Forbes: Hyping Your Conspiracy Theory In 5 Easy Steps.:
Be sure to refer often to the Calendar of Conspiracy Resurrection to make sure you’re not revivifying your allegations too soon. A key to a successful reanimation is waiting long enough for people to forget they’ve seen it all before. Some of us, though, have long memories.