Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On a 'town halls'-ish theme...

Over at Metropolitan Hamilton, Mahesh P Butani has published a piece of mine, 'A Proposition Towards a More 'Livable' City'. Please go there and give it some thought. 

Additionally, I present it here: 

A Proposition Towards 

a More 'Livable' City

At a time when we're seeing our civic stage strewn with stinging comments, by a seemingly endless stream of invective-images, of online vilification, of an actual 'Countdown Until Bratina's Out' site, of what to me is both bad-blood and blood-lust, I'd like to present something contrarian. Of a 'dissident' nature, if you will. 

I'd like to suggest that in this time of unbridled kvetching, for the sake of argument we take a look at a notion that was inspired almost two years ago by Raise the Hammer's Ryan McGreal. Here then, is my proposition:
If we vote in councillors to look after the business of the City and leave them alone, then what ensues is the result of acombination of the councillors' innate skills, how well they respond to input, the nature of input provided by City Staff, and how they're 'influenced' by The Development Powers as they all sit at the local governance table. If there's no engagement from residents, if their genuine and authentic needs, feelings and desires aren't consistently impressed upon Council, then it'smore likely that disappointment and frustration and disillusionment will result. 

Yes, good governance does happen, regardless of our parts-played, the degree of our contributions as Hamiltonians. 

And yes, if you get some 'Saviour Candidates' come along, they'll impact this paradigm to the positive. But the ceiling is still going to be pretty low, potential-wise. Besides; is it reasonable to expect that such people are generally inclined to enter into an arena where the above descriptives abound? Disappointment, frustration and all that?


However, if we raise up the residents' level of engagement, then we begin to change this paradigm. 

As residents feel more 'pride-of-place', as they get more involved in their neighbourhoods, not only do their contributions change things, but the obverse reveals itself: the contributions they make affect them, elevating their spirits, raising their expectations. This is commonly found in well-crafted fitness or weight control endeavours: as a person commits and becomesmore active, as they try to eat better, the way they see themselves improves. They get more active, commit themselves to the effort all the more, eat better, look after themselves better, see themselves in an even better light, eat better, maintain their resolve to improve their fitness...
And so residents, with their increased expectations contribute a little more, in different ways, pushing for more for their streets, their neighbourhoods, their communities. This sense of 'healthy entitlement' becomes a self-empowering organic process. The resident notices more, questions more, expects more

What's important here is that the impetus must come from the residents. While it's always wonderful when a councillor findsa new store of enthusiasm and insight, a newly-blazed path to innovation and thinking fueled by revitalization, is this the kind of gamble we want connected to our local governance? That we're banking on a person's tendency towardsexcellence...when the likelihood is that the person was only voted into office with about forty percent of available voters taking part, and a majority of those doing so by 'name recognition'? Putting a fine point on it: if we have people doing the hiring who really aren't qualified, should we be taking this additional risk of hoping that the successful candidate can rise to their potential all by their lonesome? 
The first recipient of these energies outside the the community is the councillor. 

When a councillor begins to feel added expectations, when they begin receiving not just complaints from constituents, but well thought-out enquiries, invitations to commiserate, when they begin to adapt to the changing expectations, they slowly morph from 'problem-solver' to 'collaborator' to the resident, while maintaining wearing their 'Management' cap. So in a very real sense, they have to 'up their game'.

As this continues, as residents-by-way-of-NAs get more cohesive, more organized, more focused, and as this happens throughout the ward, the councillor must either 'adapt, or die'. By 'die', I mean that if the general level of engagement, expectation and investment increases through to election time, and the councillor has not been successful in keeping up, then they can more likely find themselves battling hard for re-election. (And considering that over the past four elections only two incumbents have been voted out, doesn't this seem like a dignified alternative to 'term limits'?)
So what eventually happens is this: Instead of being 'left alone' once their terms begin, councillors expect engagement from their constituents, and raise their game as a result, constantly fielding input by constituents whose game is also being raised as their involvement and investment in their own communities increases. 

But that's not all: as the paradigm shifts to this, potential candidates –many of whom will have been active members of their own communities, movers-and-shakers in NAs– see the opportunity to serve differently. So the arena actually attracts a better brand of candidate. 

Which means that everything gets ratcheted-up a little more: even better-performing councillors, even better-performingCity Hall, even better-contributing residents, communities...a better-run, more prosperous, more resilient...

...more livable city

Idealistic? Maybe. Na├»ve? Perhaps. But doesn't it make sense to at least give this approach a try, to utilize the one aspect of the local governance formula that has traditionally been ignored, rather than keep ourselves in a holding-pattern, one that has endless brickbats lobbed through the air, with nobody really caring who gets hit, who gets long as they have their say?

M Adrian Brassington

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Meanwhile, over at My Stoney Creek...

For some months now, I've been publishing extracts of an interview with the head of the Hamilton Federation of Neighbourhood Assiociations, Lauren 2022. 

The earlier ones can be found via this post...

...and today's can be found here.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Nope. I haven't 'forgotten' about town halls. Not at all.

Here's something I just published over at My Stoney Creek: 

Most of the action at Teresa & Co's site has to do with the 'Perspectives Virtual Panel: The Best Place to Raise a Child' article. 

Well, the fallout. 

Actually, it has to do with the non-responses from councillors. 

Um... As a matter of fact, it has to do with engagement...although not just the absence of the stuff on the parts of 13 of 16 Council members, but also how people are seeing the need for residents to press their representatives at 71 Main Street West more. 


Friday, May 11, 2012

So pertinent, I had to publish it here, too.

Yes, it's an American article talking about American society and American politics. But despite all this, there's a lot of great stuff in there. 

'Democracy Is for Amateurs: 

Why We Need More Citizen Citizens'

Here are some highlights:

-When self-government is dominated by professionals representing various interests, a vicious cycle of citizen detachment ensues. Regular people come to treat civic problems as something outside themselves, something done to them, rather than something they have a hand in making and could have a hand in unmaking. They anticipate that engagement is futile, and their prediction fulfills itself.

-So how do we replace this vicious cycle with a virtuous one? What does it take to revive a spirit of citizenship as something undertaken by amateurs and volunteers with a stake in their own lives? There are four forces to activate, and they cut across the usual left-right lines.
  1. First, we have to develop our "citizen muscle."
  2. Second, we need to radically refocus on the local.
  3. Third, think in terms of challenges rather than orders.
  4. Fourth, create platforms where citizen citizens can actively serve.

I especially liked the Eric Liu-penned article's conclusion:

Recently I came upon a billboard by a congested highway. "You're not stuck in traffic," it said. "You are traffic." We aren't stuck in sclerotic government and extractive politics. We are these things. Our actions and omissions contribute to the conditions we decry. Or, to put it in positive terms: if we make the little shifts in mindset and habit to reclaim civic life, they will compound into contagion. We are the renewal of self-government we yearn for. That may sound like Obama '08 -- but it's also Reagan '80.

Citizenship, in the end, is too important to be left to professionals. It's time for us all to be trustees, of our libraries and every other part of public life. It's time to democratize democracy again.

(Oh, and don't forget to read the Comments section.) 

M Adrian Brassington

P.S. Thanks go out to Michael Borrelli for bringing the article to my attention. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meanwhile, in the strictly-electronic realm...

The online-only op-ed can be found here...

...but because I'm concerned it's going to get lost in the shuffle:

Why Ward Boundary Reform Is So Important. (And it's not for the reason you might think)

The idea of sorting out the disparities in Hamilton wards' populations has taken off. We have a petition being circulated. We have a Facebook group, 'Hamiltonians for Ward Boundary Reform'. We have Letters to The Editor being published in The Spec, Bill Kelly has featured Christopher Cutler from the aforementioned Facebook page on his show, and Raise the Hammer has begun its discussion. 

It's all quite heartening. 

Not so much because of the prospect of correcting some glaring 'Relative Population Parity' inequities, though these really need to be dealt with. But more because of the opportunity it affords the community to roll up its sleeves, get involved and help define this city according to its own vision.

Because this issue is about us

For a change, there's no outside developer involved. There's no institution exerting pressure. There's no possibility of 'in camera-esque' backroom negotiations unfolding, and unlike say, with Area Rating and its public consultation, there isn't anything that Council can point to as being so critical as to have to shoo us out of the room so that the 'adults' can make a decision due to there being potentially dire consequences attached to it. I know, because I've been having correspondences with communities across Ontario who have gone through this process. 

No, this ours

Some may make the case that we're hardly in the middle of a fractious term at Council, that there have been no destiny-altering votes that have taken place because of imbalances in our ward representation, so it's hardly a desperate situation requiring attention. And they'd be right. So I don't think the reason ward boundary reform is so important is to prevent power struggles. Or even so much to right the representational wrong, though to me, it's indisputable that we have one.

I believe that it's important –I'm heartened– because over the next six-or-so months we could see genuine dialogue in Hamilton. 

Authentic discourse. 

Certified debate. 

We can safely, without fear of there being too much at stake to risk getting it wrong (as with the Pan Am Games stadium site-selection, or the West Harbour/Barton-Tiffany/Setting Sail situation) set the agenda, explore what it means to invest in an element of our city's makeup, actually participate to whatever extent that we have the initiative and motivation and energies to do so. For once, we don't find ourselves in a dramatic scenario, in a precarious position of someone else's making, one where we risk 'snatching defeat from the jaws of victory'. Because though there may be time-constraints and procedural requirements attached to the process, what unfolds here is almost entirely up to us. We, the people.

For some time now, I've been harping on about increased resident engagement. And people have generally responded with a weary nihilism, that things are just too set in stone for the kind of change I'm championing to happen, that it's almost impossible to effect, that the longstanding roles played aren't easily re-written. I've had it suggested to me that the HWDSB headquarters project has been the best possible proof of this. 

Maybe so. But that just makes me look at ward boundary reform with even more optimism. If for no other reason than it's such a rich opportunity to galvanize residents, to gather together and discuss something fundamental about our city, and actually impact things for a change. It's a chance to get experience at 'marshalling the troops', at gaining a better understanding of how the game must be played on our part in order for us to be viable players at the table. 

To me, no matter what tangible result we get out of the endeavour to re-draw boundaries, no matter how much more equitable our wards end up being, the potential growth in our confidence, in how we see ourselves within our own local governance may just be the most valuable possible outcome. 

M Adrian Brassington