Pub­lic in­put is so in­con­ve­nient

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - KIRK LAPOINTE

As I watched ho­tel work­ers last week tear­fully present to a Van­cou­ver city coun­cil com­mit­tee on their dis­turb­ing job ex­pe­ri­ences – con­stant ha­rass­ment, episodes of as­sault, in­dif­fer­ent em­ploy­ers – I had to put my head in my hands about an­other item on the city’s agenda.

First, though, let’s take a slight de­tour, an anec­dote in stark con­trast to the plights and pre­sen­ta­tions of those work­ers but in keep­ing with the same theme of pub­lic en­gage­ment.

It goes like this: Jean Charest, the for­mer fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter and Que­bec premier, once led a pub­lic cross-coun­try con­sul­ta­tion on con­sti­tu­tional re­form. In each town ev­ery­one who showed up was given five min­utes to present. Tall or­der.

Charest re­counted that those of a cer­tain age often started pre­sen­ta­tions along the lines of: “I’m 83, I’ll be 84 in the fall,” or “I’m 76, I’ll be 77 in May,” or “I’m 91, I’ll be 92 in De­cem­ber.”

Sure, some­what amus­ingly, they de­scribed them­selves by the age they in­tended to be.

But they were there, Charest said.

They were there.

As were those women last week, as are thou­sands of peo­ple in our com­mu­nity ev­ery year.

What I won­der now is: do our elected of­fi­cials care enough to lis­ten?

The pre­sen­ters cer­tainly care enough to carve out time from their day and speak about their pas­sions.

But it is clear in read­ing any pro­posed city by­law that pub­lic in­put has been pro­nounced an in­con­ve­nience to hear.

Strangely, in­fu­ri­at­ingly, there is a broad ef­fort un­der­way to cur­tail pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tions and cor­rode the covenant of pub­lic en­gage­ment.

If in el­der years ahead I lapse into that pat­tern of open­ing my re­marks with my age and am­bi­tion of age – I’m 61, I’ll be 62 in De­cem­ber – I would need to make my case in, gulp, 180 sec­onds.

The pro­posed amend­ments to by­law 9756 kill the vibe of con­sul­ta­tion.

Among its ob­ser­va­tions: too many peo­ple want to talk. Among its so­lu­tions: turn terse pre­sen­ta­tions into teensy ones.

Re­marks would be lim­ited to an anorexic three min­utes, down from a skinny five, and ques­tions from coun­cil­lors to three min­utes from five.

The Tran­sLink May­ors’ Coun­cil co­in­ci­den­tally is do­ing the same three-and-three thing as a six­month test.

The new by­law would limit or­ga­ni­za­tions to one pre­sen­ter. It ex­cludes pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tions on coun­cil­lor mo­tions.

It re­stricts crit­i­cism of politi­cians and staff in their pres­ence.

It bol­sters the city man­ager’s pow­ers and the staff’s ad­van­tage in pub­lish­ing re­ports at the last minute.

This isn’t just hap­pen­ing in Van­cou­ver.

If we were flush with en­gage­ment tech­niques, some of this might be ac­cept­able.

But that’s a big if and a big­ger no.

Our free­dom of in­for­ma­tion laws would be funny if they weren’t so sad.

Our in­sti­tu­tions don’t hold meet­ings as they should in neigh­bour­hoods away from their cham­bers.

Our city coun­cil meet­ings are rife with amend­ments to amend­ments of amend­ments aris­ing from amend­ments to mo­tions in­ter­rupted by points of or­der and lav­ish plates of self-serv­ing so­lil­o­quies.

Our city coun­cil­lors love no voice like their own, so many of them al­ready gird­ing to be mayor.

Their in­dul­gences have sent staff to study dozens of their eclec­tic the­o­ries and schemes in the months since the elec­tion.

Post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions would do well to launch de­gree­grant­ing pro­grams in Po­lit­i­cal Pet Project Re­search.

The coun­cil dis­unity, even among those sup­pos­edly com­mit­ted to cau­cus sol­i­dar­ity, has been manna for the en­trenched bu­reau­cracy, which has as­sumed con­trol of the city in a mat­ter of months.

As for en­gage­ment, Van­cou­ver has em­barked on a staff-driven, $18 mil­lion, multi-year ex­er­cise to rec­om­mend new pro­cesses for our city’s de­vel­op­ment.

This bloated, top-down con­sul­ta­tion could have been con­ducted for a frac­tion of the price in a frac­tion of the time.

But this isn’t just hap­pen­ing in Van­cou­ver.

Yes, yes, it’s the pub­lic that’s the prob­lem here.

Too many want to talk too much.

We will be courted again next elec­tion time, promised a voice at city hall, val­ued for our in­put, then left at the curb.

Yes, by all means, ap­prove the by­law, coun­cil­lors.

See you then.

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