The need for a full-time City Council in London

Most of this I’ve posted as either Tweets or Facebook comments but I thought I’d take a few minutes to jot a blog on the topic of Community Engagement in London.

I’m a Londoner who lived in Toronto for 11 years. For 7 of those, I was lucky to work as political Executive Assistant for midtown Toronto City Councillor Michael Walker (now retired) and former Works Chair (while I was there) and later, David Miller’s Budget Chief, Shelley Carroll. With both Councillors I/we were out in the community holding and attending meetings an average (easily) of three nights per week in the evenings. We held meetings on any/every range of issues – from Traffic, Parking and Development to Water and Hydro issues.

When someone moves a garbage can up-wind in Toronto, you can expect a call from a Constituent who demands and gets service. When not assisting with Constituent matters (which 311 should reduce some demand,) I and the 2 other staffers (not suggesting this for London) were busy working on policy issues – Economic Development, City Planning, Transparency … distributing notices of works, zoning variances, polling constituents on parking and other issues and generally working full-time to make the City livable while making it successful. This is also a good tool for further building leadership within communities (some of my colleagues were School Board Trustees, involved with other parties and a vast majority were under 35.) We seem to expect a fulsome City w/ healthy debate without paying to make it happen. All of this would truly engage homeowners. (and if we put a price on road capacity, per KM, we’d also reduce commute times and increase public participation but that’s another essay!)

First, I’ll say that community engagement efforts face as steep an uphill a battle as it might anywhere. That’s not to say Londoners don’t care. Many do. And many are active citizens. But many care in their own way and that means, they feel they should be left alone by the City government who should simply fill potholes, provide policing and enable the private sector and do it all cheaply. And while I don’t agree with that view, it’s entirely legitimate (if totally wrong.)

Many Londoners enjoy the sleeping comforts of suburban lifestyles and simply want to be in front of their television in a City where people aren’t murdered too regularly. Their suburban neighbourhoods also contain very little real diversity (beyond the colour of people’s skin I mean) of primary or secondary economic use and are most often divided into use-based pods, with the poorer populations shoved out to a high-rise surrounded by a vacuous wasteland of mostly unusable ‘parkland’ on an Arterial road. The corner store is normally just about as far as anyone will willingly walk for anything lighter than a bag of milk and generally a larger row of larger box-type facilities (with all the familiar brand names just advertised on TV) are located with the biggest boondoggle of all – free parking. This lifestyle encourages people to not take part in any activity or social group that is not of their specific choice.

Since houses are relatively far apart, public notices of zoning variances and Official Plan / Zoning amendments get circulated to very few of those people who will generally be impacted. Lacking full-time Councillors to act as eyes and ears and communicators for all of their neighbourhoods, one of the most critical places for consultation – development issues – is left largely to usual suspects who show up at all the same City meetings. Since neighbours rarely meet unless they really wish to, word of mouth, opportunities for postering, etc., are limited – the size of population needed to sway opinion at City Hall is incredibly hard to get outside those immediately effected. Now, given our thirst for one and a half-storey buildings, you might be tempted to think that’s a good thing but consultation is often part of a longer-term project to grow a more informed citizenry. Perhaps Londoners would support higher densities on long arterial roads if they were given the opportunity more regularly to attend public meetings about development. No one can replace the local Councillor in this role.

Suburban sprawl has also led to unprecedented traffic snarl-ups that the traditional cures of road widening and building have only made worse. Congestion has been shown to reduce public participation rates. Is it any wonder so few Londoners engage in their City.

London is a highly private City – our Community Centres are primarily private, save those in the most needy communities. This is unlike many urban areas where the City offers recreation space and programming rather than a private company. Surely the City does have some of these facilities but I know they’re not located anywhere close to me to be able to get there on foot and I’m not sure how many buses I’d have to take to get there either.

These are but a few of the natural barriers to community engagement in London. I believe the biggest issue though is the lack of full-time politicians with areas small enough to truly get to work on City-building efforts which must, to be successful, occur on a micro, block-by-block basis. How does London intensify its’ building density and population density in order to relieve the costs of sprawl and the rising costs of Oil (not to mention the multitude looming resource depletion issues) or minimize our dependence on automobiles and hence, our increasing output of Greenhouse Gases?

Can local Councillors solve all these questions? Of course they can’t. But, a local Councillor is a key tool for engaging residents and businesses in their neighbourhoods about the myriad of services that Cities deliver. When residents are afforded the opportunity for true engagement – not just once-every-4-yr elections and not just Master Plan vision sessions, but as their neighbourhood and community grow lot by lot, issue by issue, and on an ongoing basis, they become more engaged as residents of the City.

Lastly, a word to those who would oppose paying politicians more than they already get or who think that people should simply do the job because they care about their community. This position is rather naïve and sadly misinformed about both economics and about labour market choices. It’s also an insult to those who might aspire to earn a higher living through hard work and community engagement. To single mothers it says, don’t give up your day job or you won’t be able to feed your children any better and will have less time to raise them. It also tells the office holder that their day job means more and is priority number one.

The quality of the candidates that run for office is also a result of the pay. Not everyone can afford to do it for altruistic reasons. One should look at salaries in competitive positions in the London marketplace. This is not manual labour. Consider what a University Prof makes, for instance? Or a good Accountant – Paul Van Meerbergen works a full-time job in addition to being a Councillor but having lived in his ward for 2 years (actually, directly around the corner) and I can honestly say I’ve never met the man. Paul Hubert runs Pathways in his spare time (I don’t think he actually has any spare time) and since it’s located downtown, Hubert is incredibly active and I think a bright light on Council. But he’s highly educated and his job pays much more than his Council position. But Paul is rather rare and I’d bet he’d devote much more of his time (beyond what I know he puts back in the income he gets from being a Councillor) if he were paid more. And I’m sure higher pay would draw many more great candidates in every ward. As it is, given the hassle that comes with the benefits, the insults that come faster than the thank-you’s, the loss of family time, etc., the pay really isn’t much at all. And while I love the notion that people ought to do this out of the goodness of their hearts, I believe in the power of economics and incentives. There’s a long-term message to kids making long-term career decisions that they should pursue other, ‘more worthwhile’ careers that pay more – public office, at least at the local level in London, is not a real career choice. Is it any wonder Councillors are held in such low esteem? Pay is a powerful signal.

Finally, while paying Councillors more is no guarantee of the City’s success in building a sustainable and resilient economy, I can guarantee that no successful City operates with Councillors who have to keep other jobs to pay their bills. By being penny-wise and pound foolish when it comes to political representation at City Hall we short-change our City, our future and ourselves.


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