by Tim Plumptre
This meeting is about Lansdowne Park, and what’s happening — or going to happen — there, unless the Friends of Lansdowne are able to do something about it. So you might expect in my remarks that I would start at Lansdowne. However, I want to start some distance away, in the City of New York.
But first, a little background. In 1990, I established a non-profit organization called the Institute On Governance. I had in mind that the Institute would be a think tank to help to share progressive, Canadian-made views about effective governance of public organizations with people elsewhere in the world. I believed then, and I continue to believe, that the quality of our public institutions has a huge impact on the quality of life in our communities.
I left my role as CEO of the Institute about three years ago, but at the time, as our work progressed we found ourselves frequently confronted with the question, what does “good governance” mean? And where is governance going? What new principles or practices distinguish those organizations that are the true leaders in governance? These questions continue to preoccupy me.
It’s now apparent that one of the areas where leaders are excelling is in the domain of consultation or engagement of stakeholders and citizens. Both in government and in business, progressive organizations are establishing new mechanisms, new methodologies, and new principles that are changing the ways in which decisions are taken.
Increasingly, the question being asked around board tables is, whose voices need to be heard on this question? And how can we make sure that we have access to those voices?
Now, to New York.
Earlier this month, we passed by the anniversary of one of the saddest days in the history of the United States. At some point, I expect everyone in this room saw those heart-stopping replays of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, of office workers tumbling to their deaths, or of those massive towers crumbling to dust. Who among us can forget where we were at that moment? Who can erase those agonizing memories?
A few years after 9/11, I attended another event in New York that will also live in my memory. This was a consultation organized to tap public opinion about the future of the World Trade Center site. At that time it remained a gaping hole, a wound in the heart of the city. What to do about it?
This event was both implausible and improbable. Implausible, because the World Trade Center sat upon some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. Who would have thought that where so much money was at stake, anyone would think to ask the public for their views?
It was improbable because it seemed so unlikely that anyone, or any organization, could successfully pull off a public consultation where thousands of citizens had to come together for a full day to listen, discuss, and opine.
These citizens ranged from street people to stockbrokers, from corporate lawyers to illegal immigrants, from barons of industry to restaurant workers. A multitude of races, creeds, colours and economic circumstances.
The reason I wanted to tell you about this event is because I wanted you to know, if you don’t already, that public consultation has come a long way in the last few years.
What we saw in New York was a process where people talked to each other, where they compared views, where they debated ideas and shared opinions.
An enormous amount of preparation had gone into this event, to ensure that no single set of views dominated, that people felt comfortable and secure, that views would be recorded and shared as the day progressed, and that the discourse would not be dominated by people in positions of power, whether from government or from business.
Those people – by their own agreement -- sat on the sidelines, along with the media, so that citizens could have their say, undisturbed. They had only one job, and that was, to listen.
By the end of the day, 4,500 people had managed to express their collective views. Not only that, they felt good about the day. They felt they had been treated respectfully and honestly and that their voices mattered.
They had been presented — as we are here today in Ottawa — with plans for the future of an urban site, plans upon which millions of dollars had been spent. They were invited to pick their favourite plan.
But the citizens didn’t do that. Nor did they have to. The structure of the session allowed them to take the conversation where they most wanted to go. So they decided instead that none of the plans was satisfactory. They told the developers to go back to their drawing boards.
And the most improbable thing about this whole day was that the City and the Lower Manhattan Port Authority and the big corporate interests listened. The concept for the site was fundamentally changed, and none of the pre-cooked corporate plans was implemented.
Today, in cities and communities everywhere, more and more people realize that public consultation is not just a matter of lining up a group of shirts and suits at the front of the room and giving ordinary folks a chance to ask questions. It’s about dialogue and conversation, not information sessions (wrongly publicized as “public consultations”) where those who are in power tell those who aren’t, what’s going down and why.
There are new tools and methodologies for fostering public conversation. There are companies, including some here in Ottawa, who have people who are expert in the art of public engagement who can advise on how to run genuine consultative events.
In some cities the politicians ‘get it’. Politicians like those in New York who authorized the consultation on the future of the World Trade Center.
WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT OF THE CITY OF OTTAWA
Now, let’s switch the scene to Ottawa.
When you travel internationally, as I did with the Institute, you are constantly reminded what an extraordinary country Canada is, and how fortunate we are to have a capital city where people can walk the streets in peace.
Ottawa is a great place to live. It’s not perfect, but it works pretty well. It has some wonderful assets — too many to list here, but, for example, vibrant communities, our bike paths, the canal, our strong business sector, our national galleries and museums, Winterlude, festivals ... It’s a pretty special place.
And that’s as it should be. After all, Ottawa is the National Capital of one of the best countries in the world. It should be seen as a leader on the international stage not only in its geography and physical assets, but also in its governance practices.
But unfortunately, it’s got a long way to go when it comes to its relationship with citizens, particularly when it comes to issues of development and zoning.
I asked a prominent Ottawa architect who deals a lot with these issues for his views about how the process of decision-making tends to work in this town. “It’s a charade,” he said. “They go through the motions but most of the time, the decision is already made.”
Here is another story, this time, local. The other day, I had occasion to observe an episode at Planning Committee of City Council. Among the issues in play was a protest by citizens from a particular community regarding a zoning change. This would have permitted a beautiful heritage building, in an area zoned as residential, to be turned into offices.
I’m not going to speak today to the merits of the particular case, but I do want to speak to the process. It was pretty clear that Council members thought this was a tedious exercise. The room was set up in the usual way, with Councillors at the front behind their microphones, some with their noses in their Blackberries, while citizens came forward to make their case.
A number of citizens spoke to the issue, and one of them delivered a petition signed by almost 400 residents protesting this zoning change. This petition received the most cursory attention by the Chair of the committee. Not one Council member expressed any interest in it.
The session was, indeed, not a discussion. At one point, a citizen made a statement that was subsequently queried by one of the Councillors. The citizen in question stood up to ask if she could address the Councillor’s question but she was told by the Chair that she had had her say. He stated that the Committee was not interested in hearing what else she might have to say, even if it was to address an issue raised by a Committee member.
A little later, a point arose regarding the interpretation of a key word in a bylaw. The Chair knew what he thought on this topic. One of the citizens, who actually had relevant expertise, offered a different interpretation. Rather than considering this, however, the Chair immediately put an end to any discussion by telling the citizen to sit down.
This was about the point at which one of the Council members leaned across to a colleague and was heard to say, “Why do we have to listen to this? I thought we had negotiated all of this beforehand.”
And that, my friends, is where the City of Ottawa faces a challenge. We may have a country and a city that by some standards are, as they say, world class. But when it comes to engaging citizens in a manner that is respectful and authentic, the City of Ottawa is bush league.
We have a culture at our City that isn’t given to listening, let alone hearing. In Ottawa, the deals tend to get cooked up in advance, whether it’s the fate of a heritage house or the fate of Lansdowne Park area.
The ignorance — or disinterest — of the City in relating to citizens in a way that honours the spirit of democracy was well illustrated a few months ago at one of the so-called public consultations on Lansdowne. From the point of view of someone with a modest knowledge of what constitutes meaningful engagement, both the format of the room and the agenda were offensive.
There were the representatives of the developers scattered about the room with their charts, ready to explain the virtues of their non-competitive, sole-source deal. There were the representatives of the City who were already quite comfortable referring to their relationship with the developers as a “partnership” even though no partnership deal had been signed.
When it came time to talk with citizens, there was the single mike in the centre of the room, and at the end City staff and developers sat together, ready to field any questions that citizens might ask.
Were citizens’ groups consulted beforehand with respect to the purpose of the session? No.
Did citizens have an opportunity to shape the agenda? No.
Were alternative options put on the table for discussion? No.
Was the set-up of the room geared, as it was in New York, to foster dialogue among citizens? No.
I took the opportunity to query one of the City staff members about the orchestration of this so-called consultative session. “Oh,” said this young fellow, “we are very pleased with this. This is probably the best public consultation the City has ever run.”
Well, as I said, it’s bush league.
WHY WE NEED TO SUPPORT THE FRIENDS OF LANSDOWNE APPEAL
When Mr Justice Hackland overturned the bid by the Friends of Lansdowne to try to put the processes and the decisions with respect to Lansdowne back on track, he said he was not concerned with the public policy dimensions of the OSEG proposal. He was only concerned with its legality.
He did not have to ask what is in the best interest of the city, or what constitutes good governance. He didn’t raise any question regarding the authenticity of the consultative processes used to secure public input. But we have to be concerned about these issues.
In 1998, an intriguing little book came out entitled, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” It sold over seven million copies. Its message wasn’t complicated — it reminded us how much more effectively society would function if we remembered such maxims as “Clean up your own mess” (a useful message for oil companies), “Don’t take things that aren’t yours” (this could usefully be applied to giveaways of public land) or “Share” (a helpful reminder for people in positions of power.)
There was an implicit thesis that good decisions occur when we approach them with the simple, uncluttered view of a child. When we reduce them to their essence. Let’s look at the Lansdowne deal through this lens.
It proposes to provide a public subsidy for a sport that has failed twice in this City already. Even Judge Hackland admitted that this was the “principal rationale for the sole sourcing of this project.” . But it didn’t put him off.
Does this make sense?
Under this deal, the City foots the cost of a commercial facility to accommodate that sport. In other cities, developers are expected to build their own facilities.
Does this make sense?
The City wants to approve a project to situate a major sports facility in an area where there is no mass transit and no plans to establish any.
Does this make sense?
The Lansdowne deal will build a new development that is out of scale to the surrounding community. Instead of situating the sports facility and the big box stores away from an established, human-scale community, the proponents want to plop these right in the heart of the Glebe where they will swamp the small businesses that currently line Bank Street.
Does this make sense?
We have a municipal bylaw that forbids sole sourcing. We all know that sole sourced deals are high cost. Even kids in kindergarten could easily figure that one out. But a sole source deal is what we are offered in Ottawa.
Does this make sense?
This is Canada’s national capital. Ottawa should be out ‘way ahead of other great cities in its commitment to genuine citizen participation. It’s not.
We need to send a message to City Hall that Ottawa should be an international leader in its attention to democratic processes and in the values at play in its approach to decision-making.
It doesn’t always have to agree with citizens. But it needs to learn how to engage with them in a way that is respectful, and that allows them to believe that they have been heard.
We need to send that message and that challenge to City Hall. Our vehicle for doing so is the appeal by Friends of Lansdowne Park of Mr Justice Hackland’s decision.
This is why I encourage you to lend your support to that appeal.
Ottawa, September 26, 2011