June 04, 2015

Making Toronto Politics More Accessible

While politics is supposed to be a two way street where both citizens and elected officials need to engage each other, the process can get as stuck as on the Don Valley Parkway at times! I was reminded by this fact while deputing at City Hall this past Thursday about cycling safety in construction zones. Before then, I only made one deputation on the municipal budget and it was because it was an evening session. Unfortunately, most committees at Toronto City Hall are structured so that making live deputations require taking the day off work. It is a shame this activity tends to be catered more towards experts and advocacy group directors because live deputations offer a greater impact than written submissions, allow councillors to ask you questions and get to know you better, and allow you to network with other concerned citizens.
Don Valley Parkway during the July 2013 flood

So, how do we go about making Toronto City Hall more accessible? While it may be tempting to say hold committee meetings during evenings and weekends, this poses several problems of its own. For controversial items such as Gardiner East and Billy Bishop Airport, over 100 people may register to depute. In such instances, the meeting could last five or more hours; meaning it could be past midnight before the meeting is finished. Certain committee meetings could last more than that under the current format, so a night session would require reducing the deputation time from five minutes to two, cutting out questioning, and reducing the quality of each deputation. Not to mention, elected officials are people too with family commitments and all.
Edward Keenan moderating a casino discussion with Vaughan, Greenberg & Pimentel
Evening committee and other public meetings are also not the most stimulating ways to get involved. Especially after a typical nine to five work day! However, there is one format which worked well during the 2013 casino debate. On January 31, 2013, the now defunct #TOpoli Collective held an informal social at Tranzac’s Club to discuss the issue, which enabled the 100-150 participants to feel more relaxed. Participants were grouped into approximately ten tables and were given a few questions to discuss among themselves. About an hour later, facilitators had one person from each table to discuss the table mood (e.g. pro-casino, opposed, or mixed), along with key reasons. This followed with a panel discussion featuring Unite Here 75 President Lis Pimentel, then city councillor turned Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, and city builder Ken Greenberg. It was a healthy debate with balanced arguments on both sides. The discussion also had a social media component, where participants could use the #TOpoliWTF hashtag.
Metrolinx meeting with CEO Bruce McCuaig at the podium

In places where civic engagement is relatively low, this could be a good way to boost turnout and could also apply to not for profit groups. While an informal social on its own cannot be a substitute for committee and public meetings, they can help fill in the missing void from low participation in more formal meetings. The informal roundtable concept can also be integrated in formal meetings, which Metrolinx did at a meeting in Toronto on February 9, 2013 to discuss The Big Move, including transit projects and revenue tools. A couple of final recommendations for informal socials include having the discussion minutes recorded so they can be attached to City Council agenda items, as well as providing those who don’t drink access to non-alcoholic beverages.

Debate freely!
Rob Z (e-mail)


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