Last week four London civic activists released a media statement about a project they’ve been working on, a survey for all members of London City Council to gauge how they engage with citizens, called CELO (Citizen Engagement in London Ontario). By the time the survey closed, 14 of the 15 members of Council (including the mayor) completed the article. You can check out the webpage for CELO here.
This week, I wrote this Metro article on CELO. I submitted it Wednesday, only to read that same night that Ward 10 Councillor Van Meerbergen had not only refused to complete the survey, but had fired back against the survey and those that published it, his response in full can be read in this article.
Despite the fact that the goal of the survey was to be non-partisan and non-judgemental, Councillor Van Meerbergen’s entire response is combative. Despite the fact that all of his colleagues had no apparent problem completing the survey, he tells the group that published CELO that he isn’t accountable to them but only to his constituents, and that they have no right to make such demands. He continues to say that he prefers face-to-face interactions and works hard to meet a wide variety of constituent concerns, which is very demanding. It was his concluding paragraph that captured the most attention:
“Moreover, your original premise for this initiative is false. It is not the case that electorate is guided or motivated by the levels of communications pumped out by councillors on City Hall expense accounts. Citizens involve themselves in politics and policy-making when they have material interests at stake, primarily threats to the peaceable use of their property, the proper provision of basic city services or the threat of rising property taxation. Threats to these material interests motivate action. A lesson you and your colleagues ought to remember.”
I readily admit that this kind of interaction is how many citizens connect with City Hall, which is absolutely fine. I find it highly presumptuous to assume that this is how all interactions should take place. Even if this is his own personal experience, I imagine that if he spoke to other members of Council they would paint a much different picture of their connections with constituents.
For example, I’m willing to guess that young people are much more likely to connect with their ward councillor if they can approach them in a medium comfortable and familiar to them, such as Facebook and Twitter. Personally, I like to be able to ask councillors questions through Twitter, and have found that those interactions have opened the door to face-to-face meetings.
As well, I think that to take this approach to meeting with citizens is far from perfect. It creates a situation that is entirely reactionary instead of preventative. Why not encourage a relationship between Council and citizens that isn’t just complaint-based? Why not start an ongoing conversation about what can change, but also the positives happening? I’ve met with several members of Council to get to know them on a professional and personal level, to share thoughts about the city as well as life in general. It sets a much better relationship, and makes it easier to come forward when there is an issue to address.
As I’ve become more involved in the city I’ve encountered a great deal of criticism, predominantly in comments on London media articles and blogs (I’ve seen the light and no longer read any comments on the London Free Press). The criticism can be generally boiled down to these questions:
“Who are these people?”
“Who do they think they are?”
“Don’t these people have lives?”
We all have lives, but we choose to use our time to be involved in our community, learning and growing with it. I own a computer drafting business, doing highly demanding work for hydro utilities and hydro standard organizations across the province. There are nights that I would rather be doing anything other than reading through a subdivision plan, picking apart the city’s Official Plan or going over a financial report. But I do it, because it’s important to further understand how our city works and participate in studying the decisions that shape our lives.
We all have a voice. I aim to use mine to ask questions to the smartest and most knowledgable people I can find, and share what I’ve learned with others. We all have a part to play, and I hope that everyone will speak up with me. This is much more powerful and meaningful than the choice to use a voice to attempt to ridicule and silence others.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many amazing, gifted people as I get more involved with London politics and community. The four that put together the survey, Eamon O’Flynn (@EamonOFlynn), Susan Toth (@TothSusan), Shawn Adamsson (@late2game) and Anne-Marie Sánchez (@anma_sa) all immediately come to mind. But there are so many others, Glen Pearson (@GlenPearson), Abe Oudshoorn (@AbeOudshoorn), Jodi Simpson (@jodisimpson), Chris Moss (@christine_moss)…the list goes on. All of them are hard-working thinkers and activists in our community, working in their own way to make it better.
But we’re only a few in a city approaching 400,000. I want to see as many people as possible get involved.
You can contact your councillor just to say hi and introduce yourself, give them a chance to find out what matters to you. Be curious. Go to city hall and watch your tax dollars at work. Are you happy with what you see? Does the councillor you voted for behave the way you hoped they would? Find out what’s going on in your ward and get active on your home turf. Find out how you can help your neighbourhood, your councillor should know how. If you’re not satisfied, remember that next election, and spread the word to other voters who live around you.
Keep informed, know which councillors are taking big donations from interest groups, or have undeclared conflicts of interest, and watch to see if that changes their decisions. In the end, you should know whether or not your councillor is actually representing you. If they are, contact them and tell them so. If not, contact them and tell them so. When people take an interest, Council is held accountable for their actions, for your money, and for your neighbourhood.