Musings on public input


Mob rule When I hear a call for a public meeting, my first thought is to ask why we need it. Is the issue something that absolutely needs more public input above and beyond what is already widely available?

Public meetings require considerable planning, advertising and recording. Sometimes they require a large space, which has to be rented. Is the issue big enough to warrant such a process or cost? Is this meeting efficient, or will it delay a process or a decision unnecessarily?

And, of course, I ask: does it serve the community as a whole or just a special interest group?

Political theorist Hannah Pitkin wrote that political representation is a “social relationship, constituted in part by shared meanings.”*

Social relationships are two-way. They require interaction, dialogue and trust to function. But with so many people, so many interests, demands, needs, wishes, agendas, issues and goals in even a small town, the relationship between representative and electorate is naturally uneven. You cannot be all things to all people.

The result of that imbalance is the rise of “informal representation” where special interest or advocacy groups formed to focus attention on their particular goals or demands because they feel under-represented by the politicians or the media.

But while any elected representative can make some claim to be universal and inclusive, special interest groups are, by their nature, particular and exclusive. Council has to worry about infrastructure, the downtown, taxes, industry, recreation, jobs, zoning, the debt, communication, library, museum, bylaws, budgets, signs, staffing – a whole gamut of issues, services and facilities that most special interests ignore in pursuit of their specific goals.

Special interest groups act like acupuncture needles on hot spots of particular focus. They can galvanize their members to bring public attention to themselves and their cause, and to act as advocates and pressure points on council. That attention can be either good or bad – sometimes the attention is warranted and serves the greater good; other times it serves some more limited or even inimical purpose.

Often the informal and unelected representatives see themselves as entitled to the same decision making authority as their elected counterparts, as if on par with them. Trust between formal and informal representatives can then break down into an adversarial relationship when the elected representatives do not perform as the special interest groups expect or demand. But it is not a contest between two governments: only one is the elected authority.

To increase their power, these groups often lobby elected representatives to act as their advocates, or try to create factionalism among the body of representatives to prevent action that is counter to the group’s goals. We’ve seen both, locally. Dr. Mark Cooray wrote,

Pressure groups give rise to special problems. The public choice theorists argue that pressure groups have in fact increased arbitrary government. In the absence of limitations, factionalism leads to the pursuit of separate ends, with the government gaining power to satisfy particular demands.

To attempt to be as inclusive as possible, council always tries to involve the public as much as is both practical and effective.

Public input is ubiquitous in our system. Council meetings are open and public, and we advertise the subjects under discussion beforehand. The debates and votes are held in public view, covered by local media and available online. Public input is accepted by email, letter, or delegation, and every member of council has his or her contact information published to facilitate access. Almost every document or piece of correspondence is available for public reading. Plus there are mandated meetings where public input is actively solicited, such as zoning changes.

Councillor Hull’s recent motion demanding the town “hold further public dialogue to engage the citizens of the Town of Collingwood for their input and comments on the various opportunities identified by Council & Staff to ensure that the proceeds of this public sale are being used in the best interest of the taxpayers and residents of the Town of Collingwood,” strikes me as mere political opportunism. It is both inefficient and unnecessary (and a trifle wordy).

Why?

  • Because we already held a public session late last year, hearing delegations and taking written submissions from residents;
  • Because we have been receiving suggestions and comments from the public ever since we got the Collus money, as recently as an email sent to council Sunday. We received a request for a delegation about this just last week;
  • Because it has been reported in the media for months and as a result, the public has participated by providing comment during that time;
  • And because we have already given staff the task to collate all those suggestions and present them to council for discussion in the near future;
  • It also discredits the considerable amount of public input and engagement already received, as well as presupposes staff’s pending report will be inadequate;
  • Asking to do it again before we even have the opportunity to read the staff report is redundant and a waste of staff time and energy; it will direct staff away from other, more immediate tasks (like completing the 2013 budget);
  • Adding more ideas to the two dozen or more already collected will not make decision making easier, faster or more efficient – it will only confuse and delay the issue.**

The argument that some people didn’t comment initially because they thought the money was already allocated, and thus need a second chance, is a canard. The issue has been raised too often and for too long in the media, on social media and at council for anyone not to know about it. We have received comments and emails about it before and since the public meeting, indicating that the public has not felt shy about commenting. A second public meeting only delays the decision.

Further, you don’t keep doing and redoing a thing simply because you don’t like the answer the first time around.

Municipal politics isn’t a card game where you keep pulling cards from the deck to see if this one is the one, and if not, pulling out another until you get the answer you wanted. One point of our procedural bylaw is to keep issues from being dragged back to the table every time someone doesn’t agree with the vote.

We represent the entire community, not just a special interest. We have to consider all the possible uses for the funds; examine all the suggestions and their financial implications, and pick those that will ultimately benefit the entire community – not just serve the needs of the few.

A public meeting should be called only when it serves the greater good, not to foster personal or special interest agendas.

Once we have read the staff report, and discussed the suggestions already in it, we can decide if we need to have another public meeting. But I will always keep in mind that we are elected to make decisions, not to find ways to duck them or delay them.
~~~~~
* The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
** After this long, and with this many ideas already presented, does anyone actually believe some exceptional, new and unconsidered idea will be brought forward?