Last week I was able to see the Fourth Wall presentation by artist and organizer Dave Meslin at Museum London (full video of his presentation here). The artistic presentation is a series of display boards advocating 36 actionable ideas for the City of Toronto around citizen engagement, many applicable to all municipalities.

As he explains, the Fourth Wall is a theatrical term used to describe the imaginary, invisible wall that separates the actors from their audience, and creates the illusion the two parties exist in separate worlds. This wall also exists between citizens and their representatives, City Council. Dave Meslin advocates for ways that this barrier may be broken down, so that we may have contact with those we have elected and keep the communication channels open.

He argues that at present, this isn’t happening in that the ways the City Hall uses to communicate to the public (information on city websites, public notices etc.) aren’t easily accessible or comprehensible to citizens. He doesn’t want to see more politics geeks (like himself, as well as his audience that night), but to find ways for citizens to be able to more easily connect with their councillors and participate in the process while living their lives.

All of these things I completely agree with, and I find his ideas for change/enhancement very compelling. We need to make City Hall more understandable and give citizens the tools to navigate its complex network more effectively.

This leads us to what unfolded at City Council Tuesday night.

Three very emotional issues were addressed between 5:30-10:30 Tuesday, CETA (Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), the Ayerswood development on Reservoir Hill, and continuing to fluoridate city drinking water. Each issue brought 3 very engaged and emotional groups of citizens to City Hall to see how the events would unfold, all of them united (or nearly so) in opposition.

I’m torn as to how I feel about what happened. On one hand, I am excited and encouraged by any action by citizens to be involved in the civic process, connect with their city council and be present when the decisions they feel strongly about are voted on.

On the other hand, I was deeply frustrated by the behavior I saw at City Hall Tuesday. Many citizens stood up in the gallery despite repeated demands for decorum by the chair, berating and swearing both at Council as well as members of staff asked (I admit, leading) questions about what was being decided on.

We need to be able to accept when a decision isn’t going our way. Every child is taught this, so I found it very disturbing to see members of the public my parent’s age behaving poorly because they don’t agree with what is being said. I do understand that these were very emotional issues, and how quickly emotion can take over – I was moved to applause by Councillor Baechler’s impassioned speech over why she would not be recommending the Reservoir Hill development goes forward (that may have to be an article for another time), though I didn’t respond to the rest of the night’s proceedings.

So, what do we take away from this? Philip McLeod draws this conclusion:

…however much we value public engagement we all have a lot to learn about how to respect and nurture it without pandering to whomever shouts loudest. That is as true for the public as it is for council.

We still have a great deal to learn about engagement and what form it will/should take. Both sides demand and should receive recognition and respect. And unfortunately, many may not return to City Hall after Tuesday because they faught hard for a cause they believe in, only to feel ignored by Council because they didn’t see the outcome they wished for. We need to continue to foster citizen input and interest, tempered with the acceptance Council may not come to the same conclusions.

Meanwhile, the city is beginning a new engagement season. Tonight, chief correspondent for CBC News Peter Mansbridge will be helping the city kick off ReThink London, the year-long process to update London’s Official Plan, which promotes controlled urban growth and ensures land use compatibility. It is the long-term planning strategy for our city, the outcome of which will affect every citizen and signal what kind of city we want to live in.

Through this, there seems to be growing cynicism of government at all levels, and the value governments place in citizen interaction. Many are speaking against this event before it even gets started, questioning whether City Hall will truly take their thoughts into consideration, or if this is only an exercise is pretending to listen while continuing to plan as we do now. There is also concern that it is the city’s development community that have the hands on the steering wheel instead of the city staff and citizens.

It’s hard not to find thoughts like this disheartening. With events like Change Camp and ReThink, the attitude seems to be that the “usual suspects” will attend, say what they always say and nothing will actually happen.

It pushes me to think that if we’re to try to truly move forward with ReThink and work to have a voice in the process, we need to give it our all, and encourage as many citizens as possible to join us. As Jedi Master Yoda says:

Do, or do not. There is no try.

I look forward to tonight’s talk, and hope it will ignite many citizens to work with the City, stay committed to the process and ensure their input is heard. It will be a learning process for us all, and one I hope will shape a better city for all citizens. We can only move forward if we keep pushing, I hope many of us will push together on this new endeavour. Tonight will be an excellent start, I hope as many citizens as possible will continue the process with me.

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