Small Victories in Hamilton

Last night was the third day in a row I spoke in front of people about our plans for Participatory Budgeting in Ward 2 (Hamilton, Ontario), at least since the surgery on my left elbow. It’s been a little trying, not to mention uncomfortable, and my arm still worries me, even though the cast comes off today. But that’s not what I came to discuss.


I have a dilemma. A dear friend is drifting away from me, and it may actually be more like two friends. They’ve both been key figures in my life over the last couple of years, and I actually have trouble imagining doing some of what I am without them at my side (or at least at my back). I feel like I have to win their confidence by pushing forward and winning a solid victory to show them we’re able to do what I’ve said we can do. It’s difficult for me, because I fear stepping forward and missing the mark will mess everything up, but I can’t see any other way around the problem but to confront it head on and blow back the barriers to our success. We’ve tried finessing the situation, but we’re stuck at an impasse, and winds are blowing up threatening to blow us off the mountainside.

Ooh… all of these metaphors and talking around the subject…. but what does it mean for the price of tea? Well, for starters, it means no more being quiet. This ‘Death By Silence’ thing is too easy, too convenient, and frankly, it sends exactly the message that our naysayers have been saying since I came onboard: we lack leadership, and can’t deliver what I’ve been saying we can.

I see the whole thing in front of me so clearly, and I’m sure I know what we need to do to fix it, but I don’t get to make my opening gambit until I deal with the obstacle in front of me: the Area Rating Special Capital Reserve Fund. It’s a millstone around all of our necks. Hard Infrastructure deficits plague the city due to 50+ years of short-sighted city planning and suburban sprawl.

Our Councillor wonders openly why PBW2_2014 participation was seemingly half of the previous year’s. Two reasons come springing to mind, because they’re the same reasons that voter turnout is down all across the board: Interestingly, the answers can be found in the late 80s hits of George Michaels, of all people: Freedom and Faith.

People who participated in the first year were told, perhaps naively, that the City Staff problem many of us had only heard vague but persistent mumblings about, would not affect what we were doing. There were precedents for doing good work with Area Rating money despite the City’s oft-repeated mantra ‘roads and sidewalks’. Sadly, a combination of hubris and perhaps jealousy disabused us of that simple tool: we were NOT to use ARSCR money for anything but hard infrastructure, set-and-forget projects, even if they’re more expensive, less satisfying, infinitely less sexy, and, quite frankly, NOT really our problem, because the City has (or had) money to fix those things on their own time. The Area Rating money was rightly seen as our first real opportunity to show the City Staff culture that we DO understand our needs, perhaps, just perhaps, better than they do. Long views and 2020 timetables are needed, but short term goals, though often viewed as ‘quick wins’ by the City, are much sexier, but just as hard hard to implement without consensus and common vision. The paradox is, these initiatives require both consensus building AND modern leadership skills.

Quick wins need to address immediate, pressing concerns of communities. You can tell a community that it costs $1.9 million dollars to properly fix one kilometer of road, but what they need to know is, will it make their lives measurably better? The short answer is ‘Yes’, but lots of things can do that. There’s no point in pointing fingers, but it helps to recognize that short-sighted thinking and problem solving have led to the infrastructure problems we have today, and incidentally divided this city so thoroughly that regaining the public trust is going to take some miracle working.

You think I’m babbling. Let me bring it back down to Earth for you: people who live in Ward 2 have a LOT of ideas about what will make their lives better, and some of those ideas are better than others. But the common denominator is that they are mostly problems that could and should be solved immediately, or as soon as possible. Our Councillor functions as a human weathervane, pointing whichever way the wind blows to direct problem solving resources and expertise–and no small amount of political capital, as it turns out–to fix whichever problem has the most impact. The problem is, he is only one person, and it’s impossible for one person to identify every problem AND solution for all 37,815 residents currently living in his ward. So he takes the most expedient route, which is to take advice from the six established community/neighbourhood associations, as part of his Ward 2 Community Council. They’re great people, and they try their very best to present the needs of their communities before the Councillor as best they can. But they’ve got a few limitations.

First, they’re MOSTLY fairly affluent, which means their problems aren’t necessarily the same as those of a lot of the silent majority in the neighbourhood; the perpetually marginalized classes who keep their heads down because the reality they live in is patently nothing like the one most of us live in.

Secondly, they’re not afraid of volunteerism or meetings or talking through problems, which is a sort of skill/mindset not all people possess.

And Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, they’re White. I don’t play the race card lightly here. I’m about 1/16th Native myself, but I easily pass for Anglo European Canuck. A room full of relatively wealthy, white, English speaking people is a huge barrier for most immigrants and marginalized people to get over. Accents alone are a problem, let alone culturally significant metaphors and allegories, even for those that really try, like myself, to hear what people are really trying to say. Seeing a rich white person coming to your door is scary stuff for a lot of these people. How can you break down that level of culturally-ingrained mistrust to get to the problems and solutions needed to make these people’s lives better? The answer is to knock on every door until you find the community leaders, and win them over, so they in turn can win over their less-certain neighbours. It takes time, effort, faith and vision. These are commodities in extremely short supply.

So what does that have to do with Freedom? We (The late, lamented PB Office) offered residents untold freedom to deliberate on the spending of $1,000,000 of OUR tax money. Freedom to fix any problem–within reason–is what made PBW2_2013 the dark horse winner it was. It got by on chutzpah, but it succeeded because it helped identify real, human-scale problems in every community we reached. That it had serious teething problems was beside the point. We reached groups no one had before. That’s significant, and it’s in no small part because we listened.

What’s lacking now is the City’s willingness to honour its mandates of community outreach and transparent cooperation with residents. we didn’t get here by accident, and all of City Culture’s attempts to turn back the clock to 1985 achieve absolutely nothing. People want more than just a choice of 16 mayors. They want a seat at the table. They want to help decide where their tax dollars should go. They can’t possibly do worse than some already have within City Hall’s white walls.

In short, they want a new deal. And they deserve it.

The other big factor, which is like the 500lb gorilla in the room, is Public Trust™. Promises are nice, but results are key. Show Me The Money. Pictures or It Didn’t Happen. Where the F#$% is my proposal?

There has been a serious lack of transparency in both the City’s AND PBW2’s activities, and it’s eroding what faith there was in the processes of the last two years. We have tried to rectify some of this in the last few months, but our hands have largely been tied by fuzzy timetables and a singular lack of faith in our people and our process.

That ends today.

I’ll be making a post on later today (after the cast comes off), outlining the entire PBW2 process AND timelines we (The PB Team) have identified as necessary for a successful PBW2_2015 campaign. I’ll also explain why this campaign is already in trouble, and present a few ideas about what can be done to move things forward without upsetting the apple cart or–hopefully–jeopardizing our relationships with the Councillor and City Staff. I hope you will all tune in and also share our plan around.

But now I’m going to take a short break, because I’ve been going since before 5AM, and my arm is aching.

More soon.


Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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