I recently read a good opinion piece in The Meaford Independent, titled, The Challenge of Remaining Informed & Engaged in Municipal Governance in Our Busy Modern World, In it, editor Stephen Vance opines about the difficulties of engaging the public in municipal issues and government. It’s refreshing to see an independent paper in a nation where almost all media is owned by corporations, and even more to read a salient, locally-focused editorial, something sorely lacking in our own local media (among other things).*
As a former reporter and later editor of the local newspaper (when the town had a real newspaper), I worked hard for many years to inform and engage people, and to act as the watchdog over local government. I still do, albeit more modestly, and outside the formal media framework. Readers here know that citizen engagement has long been an issue I’ve also raised, although my words of warning seem to have gone unheeded. Our last municipal election here saw a meager 39% of eligible voters show they cared enough about their municipality to vote, even though voting had never been easier here (available for a month online and at regular times for many hours for paper voting).
This refusal to vote has allowed in the past three terms the election of ineffectual and inept lackeys rather than dedicated public servants. Seven candidates ran this past campaign as a block of like-minded sycophants under the now-mayor’s Stalinist endorsement, of which five were elected. The attention of sycophants will always be focused on their leader’s desires rather than the community’s needs.
The unenviable but inevitable result of successive councils elected by a minority of voters in our recent elections has been local governments more like politburos pushing ideologies than democratic agencies working on our behalf. In return, this has led to increasing apathy among residents: what’s the point of being engaged, informed, or even voting when nothing changes or gets accomplished? Why vote when a block of candidates is presented under a mayoral candidate’s banner? It all looks pre-ordained, like a Soviet Union election.
That lack of participation and this voter apathy signals the death of local democracy.
As a passionate believer in democracy and local government, the recent very low turnout appalled me. Municipal government is arguably the most important to us because it deals intimately with issues that affect us every day: water, wastewater, roads, traffic, potholes, parks, police, and so on. It’s crucial to have people on council who care about those things and who put the community ahead of their own wants. And who are willing to challenge the status quo.
After the last, particularly bad council (arguably the worst and most corrupt in our town’s history) and its worse mayor (ditto), I had expected a better turnout. I thought residents would turn out in greater numbers to turf the odious incumbents and elect a clean slate. I thought people actually cared.
I was wrong.
Local voters proved stunningly apathetic towards improving their own community’s well-being and governance. Perhaps people have become so discouraged by the crassness of local politics that less than half could be bothered to take the few, easy minutes required to vote. And so we again get a government of head bobbers, hand-wavers, sycophants, and lackeys, not a council of the best and brightest — or at least of the most passionate, who might question, might advocate for issues, might raise concerns, and make informed votes.**
It didn’t help that there was almost no relevant discussion from candidates during the campaign about local infrastructure, traffic, policing, water quality, taxes — the things that deeply involve local government. That major issue of the day, climate change, wasn’t even on the municipal radar, while many other difficult problems like housing, homelessness and growth got mere platitudes or evasive answers instead of solutions.
An unfortunate reality, however, is that many simply do not have the time to get engaged or involved. Work and family obligations can leave little time for delving into local governance or budgets. With many struggling to adjust their own household budgets in order to absorb a brutal year of inflation, time and energy to focus on municipal budgets might seem like an unattainable luxury.
It’s a situation I sympathize with: attending meetings or even watching them online can consume many hours in a day, often at inopportune times. People have work, families, hobbies, lives to manage. And even harder is trying to keep up with and understand the myriad of issues and reports that councils deal with at every meeting. These demands on time and attention often dissuade people from running for office.
But also, there seems little effort made by town hall and council to educate and inform residents in such a way as to encourage engagement and get people involved in the process. Citizen engagement has to be a prime function of municipal government, not the afterthought it often seems here.
Councillors also must be active in the community and involved as individuals not party members. Sure the mayor is the spokesperson for council, but that doesn’t prohibit in dividuals from interacting on their own, or from speaking their own mind instead of parroting the mayor’s view. Yet aside from photo ops, I can’t recall the last time I saw any member of council in public in a store, in a park, on the main street, much less communicating with and engaging our residents outside council chambers… perhaps they’re all too busy to do so. Or maybe they just can’t be bothered.
Having a strong, competent, courageous, and passionate local media is another key to having an engaged community, especially media that questions how the community is being treated by its local government. Unfortunately, since TorStar and NatPost conspired to monopolize media, and kill off local print competition (in our case, the Enterprise-Bulletin newspaper) Collingwood lacks — as do many small communities — the sort of dedicated, news-focused print media we once had. We have no local news reporting on radio, and rarely do local events get onto any TV station (all based outside of our town). All we have is a weekly flyer-wrapper with 85% advertising and an online publication. We have newslike articles online that leave out key details in order to promote the official narrative but fail to fully inform readers. Local media aspires to mediocrity but often fails to achieve it.
None of the local media offer anything as brave as an editorial opinion about local governance. We’re basically in a hole of ignorance dug for us by the corporate powers which own that media. It has become incumbent on residents to inform themselves; a task worthy of Sisyphus because we have few reliable resources or sources (or user-friendly ones).
Every municipality has a responsibility to keep its residents informed and to offer opportunities for engagement. Sadly, our municipal government does not make it easy; in fact far too often makes it difficult for residents to peer through the many veils of bureaucracy. It actively discourages controversy or questioning on its social media platforms by deleting (aka censoring) comments that don’t hew to the official line (I’ve had this happen to my comments when I offered uncomfortable facts or questions). Residents expecting engagement are in for a rude awakening when their comments get deleted by town staff.
Worse is the town’s reliance on the amateurishly designed, poorly written ads in the weekly flyer wrapper. These have an unmeasurable readership and, at least in my part of town, spotty distribution. Their risibly poor layout, writing, and design of the town’s ad pages are surely meant to discourage readership (I assume from my reading of them that few if any of their creators studied English in school…). I suspect one of the reasons we don’t see articles or editorials critical of town policies or council actions is that the flyer wrapper needs those ads to survive, so will not write or report on anything that might embarrass the town or question council’s motives. Credibility doesn’t get a say in the matter when financial needs are present.
The town’s second part of its failed strategy depends on social media. This requires residents to have internet access, accounts on Twitter and Facebook or other platforms (an exclusive rather than inclusive policy), and to actively hunt on those platforms for Town of Collingwood posts in order to see what’s going on that might affect them. Given how platform algorithms work, residents cannot depend on any post from any source appearing in their feed or timeline; and even if it does, it is part of a stream that quickly vanishes as more items appear.
Collingwood also depends on a user-hostile website and weak social media use, both of which deter engagement rather than encourage it. Collingwood has one of the most user-hostile municipal websites I’ve ever encountered; so bad that staff have told me they use Google to search for documents on their own website rather than wade through the awkward, clumsy search feature on the town’s site.
A proper communication strategy would offer more active means to engage and inform the entire community rather than depend on people having internet and social media accounts. Collingwood’s exclusive policy puts seniors, low-income earners, and non-technological residents at a serious disadvantage.***
In these busy modern times, I think many now rely on social media in place of the in-person engagement of years past. If someone can’t attend the meetings but wants to feel informed, they might turn to social media for information and discourse.
This alleged reliance is at best a false hope based on a gross misunderstanding of how social media works, at worst a serious delusion about those services. Social media platforms are corporations driven by profit: ad revenues dominate the algorithms that decide what gets seen on any feed or timeline. Worse, the more groups, people, or sources a person subscribes to, the less likely users are to see anything from a particular source. The point of any feed is to get users to like, share, retweet or comment on the maximum number posts in order to determine subscribers’ aptitudes for products and services and then sell that data along with the user’s personal data and contact information. Content or relevance doesn’t matter outside the context of focused advertising.
More to the point: social media is not a place for reasoned, considered discourse or even unblemished information; it’s about opinion and instant gratification, it’s about knee-jerk comment and argument. The speed at which it moves and the limit on space and characters discourage deep engagement. Social media demands immediacy and clickability. Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published an article on Aeon Magazine’s website, writing:
…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.
I quoted Origgi in a post back in 2019 about the problem of trying to assess the veracity of what we see on social media. After all, there’s so much misinformation and gaslighting going on it’s difficult to tell it from facts. The biggest problem, Origgi acknowledges, is trying to assess the information ourselves. Most of us are simply not capable of or not equipped to do so. Instead, we filter information based on trust, often misplaced (Fox “news” being a good example of misplaced trust in media). Origgi added,
Whenever we are at the point of accepting or rejecting new information, we should ask ourselves: Where does it come from? … In the reputation age, our critical appraisals should be directed not at the content of information but rather at the social network of relations that has shaped that content and given it a certain deserved or undeserved ‘rank’ in our system of knowledge.
Vance goes on to write,
Of course some might suggest that there is no excuse for not being informed and engaged, and I have fallen into that line of thought a time or two, but generally, I beg to differ.
Well, I beg to differ from his point of view: I believe that, in a democracy, citizens have a responsibility to become informed about and to engage with their governments at every level. That engagement may never go further than merely voting, but not to do so is, I believe, irresponsible and antisocial. Narcissistic, really: there is simply no excuse for not doing so. Sure, not everyone has the time to attend or watch council meetings; other commitments may prevent people from volunteering to serve on boards and committees, but voting? No excuses. It’s a civic duty, an obligation that should be as ingrained as not smoking in public places, as picking up after your dog, as not texting while driving, or as wearing seatbelts in a vehicle.
My point here is that citizen engagement is not something one group, agency, or corporation provides: it’s the responsibility of all of those in any democracy. Media, government, and our citizens all have an obligation and a role to play if we expect to sustain our democracy. And, frankly, it appears that all of those groups are letting the community down in some fashion. The brunt of the responsibility has to rest on the media and local government. They are, after all, organized, have resources, and the money to do better, assuming they had the willpower.
Or is it in their combined vested interest to have a community that isn’t politically informed or active? I suspect so. After all, an un-engaged community may continue to shop and pay taxes, but it won’t make changes to the power structure, won’t demand answers or hold politicians accountable, won’t question its council or its propaganda. And, yes, there has been plenty of self-serving propaganda coming from town hall for the past several years that has gone unquestioned in the media.****
Collingwood deserves better.
* Last week in the Connection the editorial page was dominated by a piece of fluff about using leftovers. Online, a recent “opinion” piece was about how rodents winter. Other previous items in the opinion bin include columns about infidelity, boosting your resume, a dating diary, and a family story about camping and hiking. It is a disservice to the community and deeply disingenuous to pawn off these lightweight lifestyle pieces under the heading “opinion;” it shows how much that word has eroded from the local media vocabulary. Worse, CollingwoodToday doesn’t even provide any sort of editorial content of its own whatsoever.
** Three of the nine recently elected were independent of the mayor’s preferred politburo: Deputy Mayor Fryer, and Councillors Potts and Ring. Council watchers pin a lot of hope on them standing up against the remaining block, to put residents’ needs ahead of staffs’ wants, and hold the line on skyrocketing budgets and taxes.
*** The fact that there are still numerous vacancies on town boards and committees at this late date shows just how disconnected the community is from its local government. I can remember councils spending hours trying to decide which of the too-many, qualified applicants to select from; now the town can’t get enough people to apply! Yet the town persists in a communication policy that fails to inform and engage its residents. The town’s communications policy is weak, ineffectual, passive, and exclusive.
**** Much of it about the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry (aka SVJI) that wasted more than $10 million of taxpayers’ money to serve a personal vendetta.