Thoughts on local municipal governance


Representation?A popular political theory presents two basic and often contradictory models of how elected officials should (or do) behave as representatives. One is as a delegate: solely acting as a representative of the people who elected them. The other is as a trustee, serving (or attempting to serve) everyone under their governance. In practice, these are not absolutely discrete, but are practiced in combination with one another, as situations dictate or according to how vocal the electors are.*

How is this practiced here, in Collingwood? Yes, I know, the notion of The Block actually having or understanding a theory of anything, much less putting one into practice, is ludicrously surreal. That would, first and foremost, require they do the thing they despise most: read. Instead, they govern by blunder, bluster and blame, mostly the former, without any nod to conventional political theory. But bear with me.

In the delegate model, Wikipedia tells us,

…delegates act only as a mouthpiece for the wishes of their constituency, and have no autonomy from the constituency. This model does not provide representatives the luxury of acting in their own conscience. Essentially, the representative acts as the voice of those who are (literally) not present.

An example of the delegate model – albeit not a shining example of governance by any stretch of the imagination – was when Coun. Bob Madigan made a motion for council to supersede proper planning process, and ignore expert opinion and advice in favour of uninformed council opinion, in order to satisfy the NIMBY desires of a small, special interest group opposed to a nearby development. He thus acted as the mouthpiece of this group; i.e. their delegate at the table, rather than a representative of the greater community.

But what if you are your own constituency? What if the people who elected you are not those you choose to represent? What if you and your group’s interests are all that matters?

It might be said that The Block function as delegates not of the community, but rather that of the deputy mayor (at least since the interim CAO has gone into retirement). Since The Block do not engage the public, do not initiate anything independently, and express nothing but the groupthink party line, they cannot be said to represent or be trustee for anything. It’s all about their own interests. What other opinions and input do they receive in their self-enforced echo chamber? Who could claim they are the voters’ delegates when they ignore the voters so wantonly?

Political theorist Edmund Burke offered an alternate theory: that of the trustee role. In it, as Wikipedia notes, elected representatives,

…have sufficient autonomy to deliberate and act in favour of the greater common good and national interest, even if it means going against the short-term interests of their own constituencies. The model provides a solution to the problem of uninformed constituents who lack the necessary knowledge on issues to take an educated position. By contrast, in the delegate model, the representative is expected to act strictly in accordance to a mandate from the represented.

In other words, the greater good is the overriding concern for trustees, not the needs or wishes of any minority or special interest group. Those “uninformed constituents” – including Madigan himself as a property owner in that group – should have play a secondary or lesser role for a trustee when determining the best interests of the community as a whole. Yet as we saw with Madigan’s motion, this didn’t happen: the special interest group was the authority to which he kowtowed.

There is no sense of any “common good” among The Block, as we’ve learned this term, only entitlement and self-interest.

You might expect that in our at-large electoral system, representatives would see themselves as trustees for the entire community because they are elected by them. And in general, that has happened in previous councils, although very clearly not this term. One of the few arguments against a ward system (although not a compelling one when the other benefits of wards are considered) is that it tends to favour the insular delegate approach. Yet we have that now, without the wards to justify it.

As Burke famously said,

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. (Speech, 3 November 1774)

Well, on that basis, we’ve had three years of betrayal of the public trust here. Burke also said in that same speech:

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

Substitute the word ‘parliament’ for council, ‘nation’ for municipality and you get words of wisdom for municipal governance:

Council is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but council is a deliberative assembly of one municipality, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of (a special interest group), but he is a member of council.

Yes, I realize such blandishments fall on deaf Blockhead ears. They already know everything, they don’t take advice (much less bother actually reading anything) and when they inevitably screw things up, they simply and always blame someone else because taking responsibility is not in their ideology. Besides, to implement Burke’s model, you actually have to have people who care about the community, not just their own agendas and interests.

Burke’s ideas about trusteeship were championed by John Stuart Mill. In his book, Considerations on Representative Government, Mill asked in the opening of Chap. 12:

Should a member of the legislature be bound by the instructions of his constituents? Should he be the organ of their sentiments, or of his own? their ambassador to a congress, or their professional agent, empowered not only to act for them, but to judge for them what ought to be done?

Mill leans heavily on the side of agent, not mouthpiece. Mill said it was a question of ethics – and we already know The Block have none, at least not in the sense of ethical behaviour towards their constituents – and of the moral duties of those elected (again, sorely lacking). He warned, “…the very principle of constitutional government requires it to be assumed that political power will be abused to promote the particular purposes of the holder.” Which abuse we have seen often these past three years.

He also warned that governments should, “…not be able to effect what ought not to be in the power of any body of persons — class legislation for their own benefit.” But again we have seen bylaws and policies crafted solely for the benefit of The Block, their family, friends and their supporters (few as they are nowadays, and dwindling in numbers daily).**

There is little to nothing this term that can be said of The Block acting as trustees for the community. Everything of consequence has either been for self-interest (like Coun. Jeffrey’s unlimited expense account to wine and dine across the country at taxpayers’ expense), to their self-administered pay raises (given to themselves three times so far, to compensate for their three tax hikes on the rest of us), or to benefit friends and their remaining supporters, such as the derailing of the hospital redevelopment on a new bigger site (allegedly to the benefit of property developers around the current hospital site), the sale of Collus to an out-of-province, for-profit corporation (to satisfy the private vendettas or personal agendas of some Block members), and the sale of the airport (ditto). All of which, of course, was debated and decided upon in secret and behind closed doors to avoid public scrutiny.***

As trustees, effective and ethical councillors would have held public information sessions, engaged the public and asked for input and comment before acting. They would have discussed the issues with affected parties and municipal partners. That would have been the appropriate and proper process. Anything less would suggest egregious disrespect for the people of this community and our neighbours. But, of course, none of this happened here, so you can draw your own conclusions.

As always, there is not a cut-and-dry division between modes of representation. As Gerard Casey said in a speech to the Austrian Scholars Conference (2009), “The best that can be done in these circumstances is for the politician to serve the many and betray the few.” Sometimes the needs of the few are actually of higher value, greater ethical weight or moral concern than those of the majority. For example, creating accessible spaces, sidewalks, buildings and facilities. Which was initiated in previous terms, of course, since this council has initiated nothing of that nature. And in opposition to Casey’s claim, The Block have betrayed the many, not the few. And continue to do so every week.

We find ourselves in a difficult situation, here in Collingwood. As models of representative democracy goes, ours is severely broken. Our representatives (with two exceptions) don’t actually care about the community, either in part or whole, let alone make any effort to represent them. They represent solely their own interests. The result is a crisis in public confidence and trust, not only in the members of council, but in the idea of government itself. As – Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, “I don’t trust society to protect us. I have no intention of placing my fate in the hands of men whose only qualification is that they managed to con a block of people to vote for them.” And, yes, we were conned.

Collingwood, as I always say, deserves better.


* A more complex view of representation was presented by Hanna Pitkin in The Concept of Representation (1967), and can be examined here. In her model, there are four types: formalistic, descriptive, symbolic and substantive representation. In this model, The Block might best be described as self-reflexive “descriptive” in that they represent their own constituency rather than that of any body that elected them. I prefer the binary model, above.

** In that same chapter, Mill wrote:

Superior powers of mind and profound study are of no use if they do not sometimes lead a person to different conclusions from those which are formed by ordinary powers of mind without study: and if it be an object to possess representatives in any intellectual respect superior to average electors, it must be counted upon that the representative will sometimes differ in opinion from the majority of his constituents, and that when he does, his opinion will be the oftenest right of the two. It follows that the electors will not do wisely if they insist on absolute conformity to their opinions as the condition of his retaining his seat.

Okay, stop laughing. I realize the very notion of associating The Block with “superior powers of mind” and “profound study” is immensely risible. He also suggested that it was important, “that the electors should choose as their representatives wiser men than themselves,” which Collingwood clearly failed to do this term.

In his book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke also wrote, “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.” And, he added, “Political reason is a computing principle,” which should bring a chuckle to local council watchers, since reason is clearly absent at the council table. As James Madison presciently wrote (did he foresee this council?), “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

*** In Chapter 14, Mill admonished against the sort of culture of secrecy The Block have fostered in town hall and council:

Things are much worse when the act itself is only that of a majority–a board deliberating with closed doors, nobody knowing, or, except in some extreme case, being ever likely to know, whether an individual member voted for the act or against it. Responsibility in this case is a mere name.

Mill added in Chap. 10, the warning that the, “shield of secrecy” released its users from the burden of responsibility – which is why The Block wield it so often. They despise taking responsibility and prefer to blame others. For the rest of us, it’s all about perception, as Mill wrote in Chap. 10: “…the spirit of an institution, the impression it makes on the mind of the citizen, is one of the most important parts of its operation.” Judging by their own acts, it’s hard to perceive The Block as anything but conniving and deceptive.

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