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L'etat c'est moi

I am the state. French monarch Louis XIV (1638-1715), allegedly made that comment to citizens who demanded guarantees for the respect of representative national institutions. Louis XIV saw himself as personifying the state. He had an imperious disregard for representative government. He was, he believed, the only expression of the sovereign will of the people.

I was reminded of Louis XIV Monday night, after a petition signed by almost 2,100 residents and taxpayers was presented to the stony silence of council. That petition can be seen as a vote of non-confidence in council's - and in particular the mayor's - actions during our first three months in office, not merely a comment on a particular development. It was a statement of general dissatisfaction, and should have been a wake-up call to council.

As Ian Adams writes on the East-End Underground:

Quite frankly, I didn't regard Scott Thompson's presentation as offensive, but as a pretty accurate representation of the feelings out in the community.

Continued, aloof silence might have been a better tact to take. But at the end of the six-hour meeting, when approached by the media for a comment, the mayor summarily dismissed the petition and denigrated the petitioners. As reported in The Enterprise-Bulletin, the mayor

...said he was offended by the petition and (Scott) Thomson’s presentation, which impugned the integrity of his fellow councillors. He also criticized the organizers for further polarizing the community with the petition, which he said utilized a divisive approach.

The mayor also dismissed the size of the petition - which included people who supported and even financed the mayor and many of the current council:

Carrier said the majority of council, from himself through Coun. Sonny Foley, captured far more than that percentage of the popular vote.

Well, actually all members of council got more than that, even those of us at the lower end of the scale. But that doesn't give any one of us the right to so breezily dismiss the public or any petition, whether it be 100 or 10,000 names. Voters were promised a new era of openness, transparency and accountability. That dream has been evaporating the past three months, but when the petitioners were shrugged off, the reality began to seep in.

It seems hypocritical that Mayor Carrier calls the act of 2,100 residents divisive. Just before the election, when he was a member of council, Carrier donated $100 to fund an OMB challenge against the town itself by a small special-interest group with 1/20th the number of members as the number who signed the petition. He didn't find it divisive then, in a very public photo-op manner, to support a challenge to to the town he was representing. If that wasn't divisive - both to council and the community - I don't know what it was.

Perspectives change when you're a mayor, it seems. L'etat c'est moi.

The presenters may have had an inkling of their frosty reception when the agenda was arbitrarily changed at the start of the meeting, and without warning to those involved, to bump the petition presentation several hours past its original time slot. Instead, it was slotted behind a two-and-a-half-hour public meeting. By that time many of those who had come to hear the presentation had gone home and the presenters had to cool their heels in town hall while the public meeting droned on.

And, of course, this particular meeting was not broadcast on Rogers, so that these people and any of the other signatories were unable to see it on television at home. That technical hiccup proved remarkably convenient for those at whom the criticisms were aimed.

As Adams writes of the changes in the agenda,

Last night was especially frustrating for some, as the deputation by Scott Thompson, originally the sixth thing on the agenda, got bumped to about the eighth or ninth after the mayor rejigged the format in order to 'facilitate' people going in and out - depending on the issue on the table at the time.

Conversations with the delegation and some of the signatories of the petition since Monday night suggest that they are even angrier about being bumped - a move seen as a direct slap in their faces. The result, I believe, was not to dilute their resolve to bring about change, but rather to strengthen it. And possibly exacerbate the worsening of the relationship between council and the people we are supposed to represent.

Notably, the small delegation of VOTE members remained to watch the presentation, or perhaps as Adams suggests, "...just to make sure certain council members toed the party line..."

When it came time to make my motion that would have brought a compromise to the table, it was blocked by the mayor on a procedural technicality (one I expected to be raised). It might have been saved by two of the other members at the table - anyone who voted to repeal the Heritage Impact Assessment could move or second it and at least open up the issue for discussion. But that hung in the air like a fart in a crowded elevator, with no one willing to acknowledge it. Too bad - accepting the challenge might have redeemed a couple of members in the public's eye.

In Cuff's Guide for Municipal Leaders (vol 2, published by Municipal World), George Cuff writes, "One of the greatest challenges of any council member is not only understanding, but also accepting, the fact that the opinions of others may be in direct contradiction to one's own and, equally importantly, that those opinions may be more correct or appropriate... Good decisions come from a healthy exchange of ideas..."

The comments voiced in the EB suggest that understanding and accepting a difference of opinion remain serious challenges to some members of this council. The mayor, the paper reports, "...also criticized the organizers for insisting on presenting the petition when they had been told the negotiations between the town and Admiral Collingwood had resumed. "

I only learned about any alleged resumption of 'negotiations' on Monday - the day when the mayor met with the developer's representative. I had been led to believe the negotiations had stalled. If a member of council is of that opinion, what can the public think? The EB reports, "Carrier said the politicians were staying out of the process for the moment while “experts” haggled over the issues. "

Tres amusant. It was the current politicians at the table who created the situation by revoking a previous democratically-approved decision - a move that now requires 'negotiations'. Now the politicians are staying out while others fix the mess they made. Caution: the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.

But as I understand it, the 'negotiations' in question consisted of the mayor telling the developer to go back and come up with a new heritage impact assessment to present to council. The current 'negotiations' - mentioned at Monday's meeting - consist of the town planning staff presenting 'options' to town council, next Monday, in camera. And why, oh why, should this be held behind closed doors? What this town, and what the public doesn't need, is another closed meeting.

Further, in vol. 1 of his guide, Cuff writes, "Some council members believe the reason they were elected was, well, so that they could be elected. That is, 'I've arrived.' Unfortunately the desire for change may be arrested at that point... Effective council members understand the need to listen respectfully to the ideas of others... "

I've arrived. L'etat c'est moi?

And, Cuff adds, "It's a funny thing about democracy - most people are in full agreement with it until others disagree with their perspective. That is, while people readily accept the premise that four beats three, being one of the three brings that premise into question... Not content to understand no, they did not see it your way, the proponent of the idea tries various other approaches, including bringing the topic back to council for its re-consideration. If that fails, browbeating the opposition or ridiculing their thinking is unsuccessfully attempted. Some have even either quit council or become antagonistic to the other non-believers. A child with marbles, walking home, is the picture that comes to mind."

We have here a perfect example of what happens when the opponents of a democratically-made decision get into power and bring it back to squash what the majority previously approved. Democracy means respecting the decisions you lose, not just the ones you win. Democracy is not merely getting your way. That is autocracy - and we're sailing dangerously close to those waters these days.

A child with marbles stumping away in a sulk. Good picture.

In the Guide to Good Municipal Governance (by Richard and Susan Tindal), the authors write, "A well-governed municipality is judged not only on its service delivery role, but also on its representative and democratic role. Its decisions must reflect and respond to the interests and concerns of the residents and ratepayers. The ultimate measure of these decisions isn't their business-like efficiency, but their furtherance of the public interest."

It seems to me that, Monday night, the public interest as reflected by the petition was ignored and dismissed in a cavalier manner, and shifting their scheduled presentation to a much later time slot was disrespectful. That did not sit well with the presenters and I'm sure many watching council would agree. How will those 2,100 people feel about having their concerns shrugged off with a curt word?

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