The public participation meeting concerning the Fleming Drive riot was held last night at the London Convention Centre, held by the Public Safety Committee. The media that were there estimate roughly 150 Londoners were present, from a wide range of interests – members of the Fanshawe College Student Union, neighbourhood committees in the Fanshawe and UWO neighbourhoods, as well as citizens concerned about the legality of the proposed by-law.

In all, 9 members of Council were present. The 5 members of the committee (Councillors D. Brown, Armstrong, Bryant, Hubert and Polhill) were present, as well as Councillors Branscombe, M. Brown, Henderson and Swan; Fanshawe College is in Councillor Joe Swan’s ward, it was on his suggestion the meeting was initiated.

The full agenda included items added by the public are available here. As well, articles on the event are available here, here, here and here.

The overarching theme that I collected from the meeting was a concern those responsible for the riot will be properly punished, asking how we ensure another event like this doesn’t occur, and concern that the proposed by-law as written might lead to abuse of police power and loss of civil liberties. To the last point, I was given a list of questions to try to address by another concerned citizen, Andrew Culver (@eh_c), as he was at the Civil Works Committee meeting at City Hall, to ensure that police wouldn’t overstep their powers and that citizens wouldn’t lose their civil rights because of this by-law.

Police Chief Duncan spoke to these latter concerns immediately, anticipating they would be a major reason for Londoners to attend the meeting. From the Free Press article:

“‘We need an opportunity to go into an area and quell things,” he said, noting the law would allow police to go onto private property. Only he and his top staff — and the city’s top bylaw officer — could declare a public nuisance and move onto private property.”

However, some members of the public, including Fanshawe Student Union (FSU) President Veronica Barahona spoke to voice concerns that the wording of the by-law is too vague, the reaction too immediate, and urged further discussion and research.

This concern was echoed by others, eventually by members of the Committee. Councillor Paul Hubert stated that he believes there needs to be more time to discuss the by-law, and questioned if the by-law as it stands could be challenged legally. Councillor Judy Bryant voiced similar concerns, saying that their legal advisors are excellent, but thinks there should be a peer review of the by-law by a lawyer that is an expert in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure that they weren’t overstepping legal or Charter boundaries by enacting this by-law as it stands. As well, she suggested the by-law be circulated to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association so they have an opportunity to weigh in.

Many members of the community that came to the meeting spoke of how to tighten rules and hold students accountable, from stronger codes of conduct for the students of Fanshawe and Western, to stronger penalties to landlords that run houses “like a business” without respect or consideration for those that live with the consequences. When the Committee weighed in, Councillor Polhill floated the idea that the community, not the schools, should be allowed to determine the academic penalty (i.e. expulsion) of those responsible. Still wrapping my mind around that one, but it went over well with those in attendance.

Finally, Philip McLeod shares citizen’s concerns expressed last night that this event wasn’t a very successful attempt at citizen engagement. He says:

Sooner or later – and sooner would be so much better – city council just has to get its collective heads around the concept of citizen engagement. It is so much, much more than simply holding a so-called ‘public participation meeting’, and the fact that after all this time we’re still explaining this to some of our elected officials is beyond annoying.

He notes (as others did last night when they came to the mic to speak) that the meeting was posted on the city’s website March 24, with the actual proposed nuisance by-law posted March 28, with written submissions for the agenda due to the City Clerk by Friday March 30 at 4:30pm. So if a member of the public wanted to make a submission for circulation, they would have to interpret the very complex by-law, form a written response and submit it, in 2 days.

It reminds me of the Vogon planning process in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series”. We humans are told our planet is about to be destroyed by the decree of the Hyperspace Planning Council to make way for an interstellar superhighway. The announcement goes as follows:

As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.

As you can imagine, uncomprehending terror ensues. In response:

There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.

Has a slightly familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? Though the process to make a statement/complaint didn’t involve going to another planet, the time constraint of 2 days does make it very difficult to accommodate. To be fair, Council did have to walk a tightrope of having the public meet and discuss in a timely fashion while making sure the public is adequately given time for input. This process still leaves much to be desired, but I’m glad that there will be more opportunity to connect with the committee as they continue to mull this proposed by-law.

In the end, the by-law decision was deferred to the next time the Committee would meet. Originally it would have been June, but they will schedule a meeting in May to address this issue. Some members of the public seemed anxious to see it passed before the end of this school year, but with that only a couple weeks away, I’m glad to hear that they will continue to seek legal and public council. Chief Duncan noted that Project L.E.A.R.N. would continue in the campus neighbourhoods at the end of the school year as usual.

As a former resident in the Fanshawe College neighbourhood and a Fanshawe alumnus, I was frustrated that there wasn’t representation at the meeting by college staff. As noted earlier, FSU President Barahona spoke, but she could only do so as an advocate for Fanshawe students and not to the by-law itself as it is outside her jurisdiction. Fanshawe College president Dr. Howard Rundle submitted item c) to the added agenda saying the College supports the by-law and will continue to work with the community in shaping policy, but he nor anyone else from the college management spoke last night.

This concerned me, as I heard a great deal of prejudice against the college and those that attend it, and ignorance of how it operates and how it could possibly operate. I spoke last night to discuss my time as a Fanshawe student and to tell the community that I have graduated, work in the city, purchased a house in Ward 2 and intend to put down roots here, and echoed the statements of others that more should be done by all parties to connect the students with their community. A citizen speaking after me said that we can talk about solutions like community gardens (something I think would be a good way to get the students invested and involved in their neighbourhood), but dismissing it and other suggestions out of hand, said this situation is entirely Fanshawe’s fault and we need to see them take the blame and atone, to loud applause. Another citizen suggested Fanshawe purchase the entire Fleming neighbourhood, and that every student should be guaranteed a spot in residence, also to loud applause. These are assertions Dr. Rundle spoke to at the Fanshawe press meeting after St. Patrick’s Day, and I have since written about here. I feel that although he has already addressed them, without someone speaking on the college’s behalf last night, the conversation was unfortunately one-sided.

I continue to believe we need to find creative solutions to this unfortunate and pervasive problem. I am not convinced the by-law as written is the best way to go, though it will definitely be popular with the citizens that live in and close to student neighbourhoods. I am relieved by the statement by the police chief that the by-law would only be used with explicit clearance from him or his office, but some of the wording is still troublingly vague. However, if another riot were to happen without this or a similar by-law in place and the police assert it could have been ended less painfully by invoking the by-law, the public pressure to see it enacted immediately will only be that much louder.

I hope to continue to learn about this process and what more can be done to work towards solving the root causes of this issue, not just react when another riotous event breaks out. Please contact me if you want to hear more, and contact the committee and/or your local councillor to voice your opinion or ask for further clarification. We need public participation and engagement from all sides of every debate to have a thriving discussion, please add your voice.