Still sick. Long political rant. Skip it if you came to see art, read music reviews or learn details about upcoming books and albums.
So I’m looking at my options for civic engagement in the next little while, and thinking that the best thing I can do is go back to writing and recording. My input has become increasingly outdated and strident, and the reality is, my viewpoint is not a popular one. I may manage to win over a few more people in time and get a few things done in my area, at least, that benefit the ward on a certain level. But the truth is, almost no one wants to hear what I have to say. I want a level of activity and participation, and of democratic process, that just isn’t flying in my city right now.
See, I’ve been heavily involved in the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process, and in the Neighbourhood Action Strategy process, for the last couple of years, and both are worthy concepts that could potentially do Hamilton a lot of good. The problem now with both is, they’re being co-opted and coerced into being mere adjuncts to the City process, and they’re losing their way.
Here I stand the risk of upsetting certain of my own neighbours, but it’s not without a kernel of necessity.
The Neighbourhood Action Strategy program is working hard in many Code Red-designated ‘Old Hamilton’ neighbourhoods to bring about real, measurable improvements in the lives and health outcomes of impoverished residents in various wards, including, as it happens, my own [Stinson]. There are residents in this neighbourhood who have, in the past, expressed dismay and outright denial at the very idea that there are people living in this neighbourhood that need things changed to improve their lives here. Real differences, like trash disposal, street cleaning, walkable, ridable, drivable streets, and proper paving and lighting in alleyways and under overpasses to ensure that everyone is safe, night and day. The problem is, the City AND the association membership allowed the executive board of 2013 to make a muddle of SNAP (Stinson Neighbourhood Action Plan) program, and almost nothing of note in it has been implemented completely to date, after a year and a half of waiting. Oh, there have been a couple of Park Makeover attempts, but they were half measures, not full restoration/remodelling projects. And the bulk of the work is still upcoming, and only in spite, not in cooperation with the resident committee charged with overseeing it, largely because the committee chair has stamped their feet and dug in their heels too many times over problems that the rest of the committee couldn’t (privately) agree on. One City Coordinator and one Co-Chair later, things are starting to happen at last, but not without disgruntled debate and attempts to once again destabilize the process. And that same Chair is now being put in charge of another high profile committee portfolio. Let the hijinks ensue.
I don’t blame the City project leads involved; the staffers I have dealt with have been nothing short of fantastic and patient. It’s been entirely down to our own mismanagement and a certain typical Canadian reluctance to call certain people out on their petty power struggles and ineffectiveness. The City can’t help us sort ourselves out, and our own ‘democratic’ process was largely suborned last year, and there there are indications that, even though we have a much more progressive and cooperative executive board this year, the players from last year are still trying to derail the SNAP process and make it into their own image of what is ‘good for the neighbourhood’.
As well, there are new members (which we sorely need and don’t want to discourage) who have allied themselves with the old guard, and haven’t figured out yet how detrimental those people are to everything that the neighbourhood now stands for and needs desperately if we’re ever to outlive the whole Code Red designation. It will soon be time to take these new friends aside and try to explain to them what they missed in the last couple of years, and how their interference and block voting is hurting rather than helping make positive changes in our neighbourhood. That should be fun.
Here I stand the risk of upsetting a few new friends whom I’d like to cultivate further. But my conscience tells me I’ve allowed this problem to fester too long, so I’m finally going to say something I may live to regret.
The problem with PBW2 2014 is, it’s not being allowed to be properly Participatory. Oh, there will be idea generation assemblies and a sense of community engendered once more, which I wholly support. But the problem is, the residents are being told repeatedly that there are no guarantees that their ideas will be respected and implemented by the City. This is in stark contrast to how the process tried to implement projects in the first year, because a significant number of pedants came out against the proposals that made the 2013 ballot and won last year. From the residents, both in and out of the ward, ranting on the Spectator and Raise The Hammer comment forums, to certain well-meaning Councillors who are either annoyed or embarrassed by the level of participation PBW2 got in its very first year, and posed the threat of doing more of in the following years. We have been told ad nauseum that that
From the start, the new Facilitator and PB Expert have had terms dictated to them that have essentially hobbled their ability to actually run a successful PB Campaign. From the Budgeting session timeline being shortened to (now less than) three months, to the people in charge being told in no uncertain terms that they couldn’t borrow any part of the pre-established process, even for something as simple and essential as labeling the assemblies, which is what they are, something that people could understand. there was a real Baby-with-the-Bath-Water ejection of last year’s process, and we–myself included–allowed the whole process as it was set up to be thrown under the bus for expediency and political points.
Now, for those grumbling that the 2013 process was seriously broken, hear me out for just a second: You have been mostly misinformed. I’m not a great numbers guy, but let me run a few I can almost remember by you:
We had 1024 successful ballots. There were a small number, which I can’t remember, that were invalidated due to not following the directions properly. The first two entire pages of the sample ballot, which many people actually got, even if later than hoped for, outlined pretty clearly how the voting process worked. The only thing it lacked was diagrams.
We got slightly over fifty proposals in all, a little over thirty of which went to the ballot, both independently AND as part of a carefully-considered ‘Compromise’ ballot, which allowed every neighbourhood in the ward to get a fairly even distribution of funds on worthy proposals. The Compromise list won by a small but significant margin, and all of the Compromise proposals were also voted for independently by various residents who forewent the Compromise and chose on their own. I actually saw a small but significant number of flawlessly-executed 25-proposal (the maximum number of proposals that could be chosen on the independent ballot; the Compromise had 21) ballots come in that perfectly demonstrated how the process worked. Total validation.
But there were vocal opponents, both to the Compromise ballot AND to various proposals that either made it or did NOT make it onto the ballot, by both resident outside and even within the PB camp–right from the outset, who refused to recognize that the process was working as intended. They pointed to complicated Bylaws, various meeting booking/scheduling problems and relatively low turnout in several of the participating assemblies in various weeks (much of which had everything to do with operating budget issues, mainly due to printing and the determination to influence the message being delivered by flyers, and continuous miscommunication with City Staff over what dates were good for feasibility assessment) as proof that the process had somehow failed. These vocal opponents heeded the misguided words of various prominent public figures, both online and in the print press, who claimed that ARSCR Fund money was being misappropriated to soft infrastructure tasks that the ARSCR wasn’t set up for. They deliberately ignored that Councillors had previously used the same money for similar soft infrastructure projects at their own discretion. There were also objections voiced about the PB process being run by open, democratic assemblies, instead of being carefully guided by the established neighbourhood associations, only some of whom were truly interested in the process and guiding principles of PB and Direct Democracy.
We were told, after a successful budgeting session including a wildly successful and revolutionary voting process, that we had gotten it wrong, and the City was given leave to take our winning proposals back and started doing what they had been asked to do over two months earlier: to properly vet the projects and make sure they were feasible BEFORE they were put on the ballot. The fact is, the proposals that made it onto the ballot were all vetted by the City, but the communication on so many of them was garbled or virtually non-existent that we were forced to go with what we knew about the proposals, rather than fixing what we were later told were a series of feasibility issues. The money numbers, the approved quantities, the locations… lots of things that went through the entire process the first time and weren’t properly commented or critiqued on before going back to delegation. Our previous Facilitator did his level best to approve for ballot only those proposals that he was certain had passed feasibility assessment, despite a growing communication gap between himself, the City Staff, and even the Ward 2 Councillor, who had started as his greatest ally.
Was the process too complicated? For some, maybe. the process probably can be explained much more simply, though probably not more precisely than it was. For others, the answer is a clear ‘No’. I saw indisputable proof of that in those perfectly-executed ballots. I could show you that proof, even now, if I really had to, though it would require me accessing piles of sensitive data that is slated for shredding soon. The data has been tabulated by Norman Kearney in any case, in spreadsheets constructed on the night of the ballot counting. If he still has those spreadsheets, he’d save me a lot of trouble doing a detailed and highly controversial ballot recount that I’m sure no one in their right mind wants.
Were the Assembly Organizers misinformed? No. We received a LOT of information in those first few weeks of the Budgeting Process, which, like 2014, was curtailed to a much shorter schedule due to City requirements to meet their budgeting deadlines. We even had an information session with Public Works staff, who showed us a long presentation on hard and soft infrastructure projects that could be addressed by ARSCR Fund money… and then were told flat out to steer our assemblies towards ‘Pave and Shave’ Road maintenance projects. Because that’s how democracy and public engagement works, right?
Did the Assembly Organizers all have their facts straight from the first assembly meetings to the last? Not really. Our training sessions ran concurrent to the first two assembly meetings, and we were still learning how things worked by the time we’d had our chance to make critical missteps in information dissemination. It took me most of the budgeting session to even wrap my brain around the assembly schedule as it was originally conceived and then rolled out, I was so busy just facilitating our assembly’s meetings. There were also some Assembly Organizers who were more efficient and effective than others, and I still don’t really class myself in that category, though I’ve had a few people tell me I’m too hard on myself. And there were some who were probably really only in it for the short term, for various reasons, and couldn’t stick with it, whether they believed in the process or not. But almost all of them worked their butts off to treat their assemblies fairly and respectfully, and with a bare minimum of training and guidance.
Were the proposals wrong? Not as far as we knew. Certain members of City Staff were clearly interested in seeing PB succeed in ward 2, and gave detailed critiques, despite what they may or may not have been told to do with them. Others were less cooperative. That’s not speculation. The blunt refusals and obfuscation on the review sheets were clearly written by people who felt they had better things to do than review resident proposals for a democratic budgeting process. I wouldn’t name names even if I had them. They know who they are, and they should be ashamed. That they probably aren’t wouldn’t come as a surprise to me. There is an air of arrogance that emanates from a number of staffers and department heads who simply won’t be told that their process is less efficient and costly than one designed from the ground up to do their job more effectively for them.
I’m NOT condemning all City Staffers. I’ve met so many who clearly had the public interest at heart, to one degree or another. But I’ve also met those who are clearly less interested in what they see as gimmicky public engagement processes that have nothing to do with the real job of running the city. It’s the same in any line of work, really. There are believers, and there are jobbers, and there are career bureaucrats and politicians (or managers) who don’t like to be reminded that they serve at the pleasure of the residents, and not the other way around.
I’m also going to state here for the record that I DON’T condemn the Councillor, despite his part in the power struggle that came to develop between him and our first Facilitator. Councillor Farr has a job to do, and his neck is on the line, so he has to make the process work and look good doing it, plain and simple. That he may not, nor ever did, fully grasp the process in all of its complexities is beside the point.
And finally, I flat out refuse to hear anything further said against Norman Kearny, our first Facilitator. The fact is, he did an incredible job of managing a LOT of overbearing egos to bring us a form of democracy never enjoyed in this city before. It was a delicate, difficult thing to do, and any criticisms that could be levelled at him–and they were–are mostly from Johnny-Come-Latelies and willful obstructionists who never wanted to see anything come of the enterprise to begin with. there’s a reason a lot of us who were on the ground int he first year are as loyal and as outspoken as we are about the 2013 process: because, warts and all, we knew we had something special, and that if we were given the right amount of time to fix things ourselves, the 2014 process would have been greatly improved, as it was always intended to be. Did the “Norman Kearney Process’ need to be thrown under a bus to achieve that? No. Not really. that was done to save face, and to push Noram out of the picture, so that the process could be gelded and made to behave nicely, instead of pushing for oversight and seeing that all of the proposals were implemented as proposed, the way we were originally assured we would be able to.
No guarantees can be made now. Nothing is certain. And that’s all down to the City flexing its muscle and telling Democracy–and the residents–just who is really in charge around here. You’ll get participation. You’ll get idea storming. You may even get community engagement out of the process. But you won’t get what we promised you last year, even if some of the proposals are delivered virtually unscathed. The real promise was that our voices would be heard, adn our ideas respected, and that’s NOT what we got.
And that’s not the prevalent City Staff culture’s fault.
That’s ours as Hamiltonians. We let them take away the PB process we were just getting to grips with. We ASKED them to do it, actually. We preferred the back room deals and the spider webs of intrigue to the more open, democratic, organic process of actually hearing everyone’s voice and trying to work out what the will of the people actually is.
I believe this is the last thing I’ll be writing on either of these subjects, unless something significantly changes in either of these processes. There are other processes coming up as well, but I’m just jaded enough now to be uncertain whether any significant change in how things get done in this city can truly be made to happen while we keep trying to make the changes from inside a system that doesn’t seem to want the changes. Things are getting better, here, but almost in spite of the City, rather than because of it. And that’s all down to us, both for and against progress. We make it happen. We make it NOT happen. There is no Them to blame. Not really.
I’ll say one last thing, though: It’s the 21st Century… is this really the democracy you want? Shouldn’t we be doing more and getting our voices heard more by now? We have the technology. Everyone can speak to the Councillors and Mayor an Premier and even the Prime Minister(‘s staff) via social media on the internet now. More than ever, we can be heard. So why aren’t we being allowed to help decide how things get done? Expediency is all nice and fine, but from where I’m sitting, the only thing the professionals know that the residents don’t is how the system works, not how things get done in the private sector. It CAN be done another way. We just need to develop the plans and the political drive to make the changes and make them stick, even if only for a while. A few generations of real democracy couldn’t hurt more, would they? It’s not like we haven’t tried everything else?
And that’s that, folks. I don’t know if or when you’ll see my face in civic engagement photos again. I’m seriously considering withdrawing and focussing on revitalizing my failed businesses now. I may go to a few rallies or sit in on a few workshops, but I’m really not sure there’s anything more I can contribute to the processes I’ve been part of to date.
But hey, I’m still sick. We’ll see how I feel about all this stuff in another few days, when I’m hopefully recovered.
For those feeling offended or misunderstood right now, I’d apologize, but, just between you and me, this is how I’ve been feeling since September. It’s time you knew.