Democracy Shock
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Democracy Shock

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Public consultations, as the City of Toronto currently conducts them, are at best formalities and at worst shams. The City has a Public Consultation Unit, and they tend to do a good job running consultations and then compiling the results into reports. The trouble is that the staff who run the projects on which consultations are being held already have a very clear idea how they’ll be going ahead, having formed their opinions long before the initiative had come to the public consultation phase.
Which is to say that when public opinion syncs up with staff’s opinion, staff are happy to tout that they have the backing of the public. But when public opinion differs from staff’s preconceived opinions, they will very blatantly ignore what the public has to say; when asked, they emphasize that the concept of “consultation” does not imply any obligation on their part to incorporate the positions of the public into their final recommendations.
BUT, the consultations on the new sign bylaw—as mentioned in yesterday’s Urban Planner—are different. Perhaps because the people leading the Sign By-law Project Team are not typical City employees but rather outside experts hired for the specific purpose of crafting this bylaw, they actually care what the public has to say. And, after years of becoming accustomed to the indifference of City staff, attendees are caught off guard.
We went to the meeting in North York last week and the one in Etobicoke the week before that. After the Project Team gave their brief presentation, they turned things over to attendees to offer their thoughts. Instead of offering suggestions of what they’d like to see in the new bylaw, the attendees focused primarily on asking questions about what staff are planning to do. This is how we have been trained. To almost every question, the Project Team replied with a variation of “Well, we don’t know yet know what we’re going to do. Would you like to offer a suggestion?”
The people tasked with crafting the new bylaw are genuinely looking for guidance from the public, not just on details, but on overall direction. Unlike with other public consultations, they don’t already have their report two-thirds written. They want to know what people would like to see and then they will begin from scratch a report that is to go to the Executive Committee in November. For the first time in memory, it’s not a stretch to refer to the public as “participants” at a City consultation.
The final meeting is tonight (Thursday) at City Hall at 7:00. If you’re unable to attend, you can also send your thoughts to [email protected] or leave a phone message at 416-392-8000. If you’re still unsure about whether it’s worth your time to take part, just read the last paragraph of the old Dale Duncan article here.
Photo by sssteve.o from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

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