01/30/13

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?

01/30/13

Musings on representational democracy


Representational democracy, says Wikipedia, is

“…founded on the principle of elected people representing a group of people, as opposed to direct democracy. All modern Western style democracies are various types of representative democracies…”

And so is Canada, and by extension so is the Town of Collingwood; small cog it may be in the great machinery of democratic government. We elect people to represent us, to make decisions for us, to debate the issues for us.

Some people mistake the point of this system. They believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Edmund Burke, that great critic of unrestrained democracy, was adamant that the duty of a representative was not simply to act as a rubber stamp for the wishes of the electorate, turning every demand or grumble into legislation or votes. Burke said, in a speech in 1774, that representatives owed the electorate the duty of both their conscience and their judgment – even if their views ran counter to those of the majority:

“…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke believed representatives should be a trustee, not merely a delegate. He never advocated acting without consideration for the electorate, but he believed at the end of the day, you were elected to make decisions, and for everyone’s best interests.

While good in theory, Burke was also skeptical about how it worked in practice because democracy is fraught with challenges. As Wikipedia notes, he believed,

“…government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that was very uncommon among the common people. Second he thought that common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be easily aroused by demagogues if they had the vote; he feared the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Thirdly, Burke warned that democracy would tyrannize unpopular minorities who needed the protection of the upper classes.”

Things have not changed as much since Burke’s day as we might imagine. In fact, we need even more knowledge today than ever before to govern effectively. Thanks to the advent of social media, everyone is empowered to rise to the level of demagogue, and passionate – often authoritarian and intemperate – impulses rule internet forums, blogs and social media. We see some people using those tools to “tyrannize” and bully others by the sheer volume and anger of their attack.

Perhaps the difference is that today you can more easily tyrannize the majority with these methods, not simply the “unpopular minorities” Burke wrote about.

Some people … believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Representational democracy exists because the “direct” democracy of the Greek city states is impractical today. You simply cannot convene a meeting where every citizen has a say and a vote for every issue and you can’t have a referendum for every vote. If we did, we would still be debating the palette of colours for the heritage district, or the size of A-frame signs, and nothing would ever get done.

One hundred percent participation may be democracy by strict definition, but it would veer uncomfortably close to anarchy and mob rule. The loudest voices would top the rest. That’s why we choose representatives to manage our interests: it avoids the decline into mob rule. And that means the representatives have the responsibility of listening to all voices, not just the loudest.

To prevent representational democracy from becoming a dictatorship of the elected, various laws are in place to act as checks and balances on the process and on how power is wielded. This works relatively well here in Canada, especially in our non-party municipal politics; it works rather poorly in the USA where lobbyists easily buy votes and favourable legislation. No system is perfect.

~~~~~

* The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.