Consistent with a guy who talks for three hours a day on Newstalk 1010, I have lots of issues I will be happy to write about for Your City, My City and I am delighted to have the opportunity.
But for this first post I want to write about process. Process that's broken. Process we have to fix if there is to be any chance we will effectively address those issues we care about.
The issues we MUST address -- like the growing number of people who just can't find a job in a huge city like this. Or all the people who have one but still seem left out. Or the transit we have that's good but not nearly good enough. Roads that are good (and needed) but not nearly good enough. Or the city's finances, which are well on their way to being an obstacle that prevents us from addressing those issues and more.
So if there are all of those issues and many more to write about, why write first about process? Because the current way of going about governing our city, the current way of trying to engage people in genuine dialogue about its problems, have become totally dysfunctional, and I for one am worried that even the current municipal election campaign -- especially the current municipal election campaign -- will not make matters any better.
I won't start with the obvious, blaming the politicians. I'll deal with that second! First, hadn't we better look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether as yet, we have really taken the kind of active interest in the present and the future of our city to make it what we want it to be? Even in Your City, My City there are great examples already of communities where people took it upon themselves to identify a problem or an opportunity and do something about it. But those examples are still far too few in number.
WE have to engage. We have to speak up and speak out, and even more importantly, WE have to listen to EACH OTHER. I was struck by the fact this week that people called into question my using my Newstalk 1010 program to encourage people to go to City Hall and make their voices heard. They were criticizing that initiative on my part because they didn't share my point of view on the poor management of city finances, and the huge pressure this has placed on average taxpayers AND city services as a result.
My encouragement to people to go to City Hall and speak up arose out of a frustration I had with the fact people would mutter to their neighbours or call my talk show, but they wouldn't spend an hour going to City Hall or to vote for that matter. They wouldn't engage.
Quite a few people actually took me up on my suggestion and went to City Hall.
The horrifying part came next. They spoke, rationally and with restraint, almost without exception. That included people who spoke up for more spending on the arts or child care. But those who spoke of the need for spending constraints, often couched within the context of family finances that were at the breaking point, helped there by consistent tax increases, were treated as if their opinions weren't legitimate.They were insulted and abused by at least two of the councillors.
That was bad enough. But what was almost worse was the fact that despite my encouragement, the second of the two meetings finished two hours early because there weren't enough people in a city of 2 1/2 million to fill the total of 12 hours set aside to hear from citizens.
We have to engage and engage now, and if City Hall meetings don't do it for us ( I can see why), then we have to find a better way. We are working on this at the Toronto City Summit Alliance which I have the privilege to chair. We have to find new and better ways to achieve engagement in an environment in which our political system has lost the confidence of the people (I understand why).
But in the meantime, we have the politicians and the existing process. So far, the contests have focused only on the need for financial restraint. The means, as opposed to the end. I believe in sound, responsible, practical financial management because it's the right thing to do. It's what people have to do in their own homes and businesses every day.
But I also believe well-managed finances are the foundation from which we address the huge challenges that confront us: an economy that is not all it should be, the widening gap between those who are comfortable and those who are marginalized, crime (which is still a problem) a transportation SYSTEM (roads, transit, bikes AND pedestrians, not any one).
Which brings me to the politicians. Elections are wonderful in many respects. But they are bad because they seem to force people to put on team sweaters. They seem to force people to say something is black because the other person says it is white. To tell the voters or tell each other what they SHOULD think as opposed to listening to what they actually think.
Step one in addressing this is to mothball the team sweaters. Politicians, you first. Maybe allocate 50% of your time, for starters, where you talk only about what you believe and why, what you would do and how, and NOT about what's wrong with the other person and their idea.
The people have to follow. You may have a neighbour who thinks paying higher taxes is the right way to go to maintain services. He may think we're not spending enough. Listen to him. Engage with him. Get others involved in the debate. Don't put on the team sweater right off the bat and just tell him he's wrong
This is the tip of the iceberg of a process problem we must address. And its not all about politics and elections. I didn't want to write about process first, but if we can't bring ourselves to fix it, the other issues I look forward to blogging about just won't get dealt with. And our city will not be what it should be.
More on those to come.