Editorial

Official Launch of Hamilton Civic League

Witness the birth of a truly transformative organization in a city crying out for effective broad-based organizing.

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 30, 2009

After a presentation this past March by Annie O'Donoghue of the Guelph Civic League explained how that group is working to transform local politics by increasing grassroots citizen participation and political accountability, a group of Hamiltonians have developed a plan to establish a similar group here.

Several months of dedication and hard work later, the Hamilton Civic League is ready to go live, with an official launch planned for this evening at the Workers' Arts and Heritage Centre, 51 Stuart St., Hamilton - the same location in which Annie O'Donaghue had inspired them with her presentation and the open discussion that followed.

The Hamilton Civic League asks: What kind of a city do we want? Like its sister organization, it plans to start by organizing a ward-by-ward survey to get a better sense of the values and priorities of people across the city.

The larger goal is to increase citizen participation - in the League itself, in local neighbourhood associations and community councils, and in the political process by increasing voter turnout to municipal elections.

The League's current board of directors are: Larry Pomerantz (Chair), long-time organizer of local Earth Day events; Jane Christmas, celebrated author and communications expert; Meredith Broughton, youth pastor and community advocate; and Brian Kowalewicz, who co-runs the Historical Hamilton website.

They hope to add many more members to the organization's roster over the coming months and years. Membership is free but the League asks for a voluntary $35 donation to support the group's activities.

Overcoming Roadblocks to Participation

Pomerantz, the spokesperson for the group, explains some of the roadblocks to greater public participation in municipal elections. "We have been told that issues related to poverty, literacy, newcomers to the country unfamiliar with the voting process and renters vs property owners affect voter turnout."

He adds that federal and provincial politics tend to overshadow local issues so that people tend to discount both the importance of local politics and the extent to which their vote in a local election "can make a difference." He sees a real opportunity:

A citizens group can begin to build momentum to help prepare the community for the upcoming election. We can go door to door to help people understand what is at stake and how it affects their daily lives. We can help our fellow citizens to understand why they should become informed, empowered and engaged.

Pomerantz wants the League to be truly broad-based, "representative of all Hamilton stakeholders, not painted as left or right wing, but truly representative of our community. We won't all see things the same way but we will surely have an opportunity to share ideas and learn from each other."

He adds, "How can any stakeholder not agree to a goal of engaging citizens and significantly increasing voter participation?"

Engagement, not Consensus

Part of the League's strategy is to form task forces to survey each ward in Hamilton to learn about its values and priorities. Hamilton is notorious for the deep rifts that cut across the grain of our city on various dimensions, and many issues seem to reduce to crude pro/anti and us/them dichotomies.

Pomerantz explains that contradictory values and priorities "do not pose a problem" for the League. He stresses that the goal of the League is to "will provide an opportunity for everyone to discuss the issues and learn why we have opposing opinions. Our democracy will do its best to resolve or prioritize these differences."

In other words, it's not necessary to try and usurp the democratic process: instead, the goal is to get as many citizens engaged as possible so that the democratic process works more effectively and we end up with more representative, more accountable governments.

Blueprint for Success

Hamilton has a history of citizens' groups that launched with optimistic hopes of transforming electoral results but folded when their initial efforts fizzled. Pomerantz argues that the League has "tremendous potential to succeed" over the long run, thanks to the following:

In other words, they've been taking the time to do things right and plan for the long term.

Pomerantz summarizes the group's goals and dedication:

It is only during difficult times like these that people finally wake up and understand they must voice their opinions on the decisions that are being made that affect their daily lives. The Hamilton Civic League is going to wake up the community even if we have to go door to door, and we will be here to encourage the community to stay engaged long after our vision is achieved.

Do try and attend their official launch this evening. You may be witnessing the birth of a truly transformative organization in a city crying out for effective broad-based organizing.

Hamilton Civic League Official Launch

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By Saul Alinsky Wannabe (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2009 at 15:53:46

I approve whole heartedly. Activism in Hamilton is all scattered in 50 different directions, it's time to get organized and make a real push for change.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted September 30, 2009 at 16:09:29

The meeting with the Guelph Civic League was interesting and I'd love to make this one, but unfortunately I'm in for TEDx. Hope to hear all about it tomorrow.

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2009 at 16:34:56

ditto with TEDx tonight.

i still have to sign up with the civic league...

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 30, 2009 at 17:31:07

^sign up. and donate! :)

I'll be there. TEDx sounds brilliant, but I'm sure there will be other chances.

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By luke (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2009 at 19:38:28

What do you know, it's 7:39 and NOW I READ THIS ARTICLE.

Thanks Ryan.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2009 at 23:48:54

I wish I could have been there for the charter meeting.

I'll throw as much support behind this organization as I can, but it's going to have to adopt a much more aggressive stance than its counterpart in Guelph if it's actually going to effect real change in this town.

That being said, anything which brings progressively minded, concerned (read pissed off) citizens together is a very, very good thing indeed.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 00:54:02

While individuals across the city may have many different issues to discuss, I believe it is important to bring unity, that everyone is working together to make this community a better place for all.

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By fan of the idea (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 02:04:54

I love the idea but am a bit leary of paying to be a part of something that has yet to prove itself. Especially since it is about the third like group I have heard of in the last several years, the others either no longer exist or hang on somewhere with their core group talking somewhere but have yet to truly engage the public.

It's not that I cannot afford it but I would rather pay with my time and effort than with cash.

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By grammar police (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 08:01:15

@Tammany

+1 for using "effect" properly.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 01, 2009 at 08:03:26

Thanks in part to the rotten cold going through my family, I wasn't able to attend either event.

If you went to either, please post your feedback here! Better yet, write up a report and send it to me, and I'll be happy to publish it as an article.

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By Transition Dundas (Ian G) (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 09:38:38

I have admired the Guelph Civic League for a while. Good on y'all for starting up a ditto effort here. I'm involved in the Transition Town movement www.transitiontowns.org here in Dundas Valley. Civic League will have many similar values, starting with grassroots participation in civic life. See www.lets-doit.ca for our progress to date.

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By Dave Kuruc (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2009 at 09:58:39

I was there last night along with many other passionate citizens who were there to find out how they can create change in Hamilton through our very own Civic League. Great presentation from the board who have worked for over 4 months to get to this point. I didn't want to review the launch as the main point for those who couldn't make it and want to get involved - it is easy: become a member, sign up for the working group and/or lend your skills to this group. They aren't here to dictate where this group goes - their number one goal is to increase voter turnout next year at the municipal level. How this happens is up to you! go to hamiltoncivicleague dot org

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted October 01, 2009 at 10:35:06

fan of the idea, please go ahead and join - the membership fee is completely optional and voluntary!

and for those who don't have the time to volunteer, you're welcome to sign up just for the updates and information. it's a great way to stay informed.

it was a good turnout last night, and i echo what dave said - what happens next is up to the community!

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By deja vue (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 03:45:46

Ho hum, as a long time resident of Hamilton I am always interested to hear from people who bring new ideas but I'm not quite sure that this group will avoid sharing the discard like the thirty or so "alike" groups I have heard over the years. I will be there though to offer encouragement.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 05:47:02

I see this a chance to empower people, by talking to friends, neighbours, family members, to get discussion and debate going about the issues. Each person is going to have their own view of what is important to them.

So some the questions I would ask is:

What is the most important issue(s) to you? Do you know who is running in your ward? Mayor? School trustee? For those running, what do you know about them and their platform? Does that platform echo with what you feel is important? Did you vote in the last election? Why did you vote or not vote? What future vision do you have for the city?

One of my main issues is food security or insecurity. Did you know that with current our food system there is only a three day window?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 14:36:04

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 14:49:15

Come to the next meeting and tell us everything you know.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2009 at 15:17:09

tell us everything you know.

I think s/he just did.

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By J Morse (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2009 at 21:49:04

To encourage voter participation, a list of questions for candidates could be generated through discussion. It's a comfortable message that could be appreciated by all potential voters, regardless of their position. One feels more connected with the election process when they're aware of issues that matter to their neighbors and themselves. When candidates come looking for votes, it's a great opportunity to press the issues. It may emerge that a huge number of people would push for the same thing, a common cause befitting a champion!

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2009 at 01:52:45

Ryan, I know you love to complicate things, but Hamilton's problems are easy to solve, all it requires is some discipline.

You have already stated that you believe incentives are vital when trying to promote a certain outcome, yet when I apply this theory to getting more investment for Hamilton, your back goes up.

This is one of your recent quotes..."I don't have a problem with A Smith's notion that tax policy can support revitalization."

That's funny, because whenever I mention it you seem to laugh it off as being simplistic and not worthy of discussion.

Here's the second part of that quote..."Where I have a problem is with his monomaniacal insistence that governments can't ever do anything right and that cutting tax rates is the One True Solution to every social and economic ill."

Let's take a look back on how well government has worked in Hamilton the past few decades...hmm, the downtown has virtually imploded, basic infrastructure has been ignored, Hamilton has become a magnet for poor people across Ontario, businesses have fled the city, real wages are the lowest in the GTA. Those are just a few of the great accomplishments of Hamilton governments.

If you want to solve social and economic ills, you need to go back to what works, namely a strong economy that produces lots of wealth so that the genuine poor and needy can be taken care of.

The only way to build a strong economy is to COMPETE. Just as an athlete must train and suffer if he/she wants to improve their performance, Hamilton must go into training mode as well. Rather than let others pay our bills, Hamilton must learn to be self sufficient. Otherwise, we will remain soft and flabby.

Your desire for more handouts in the form of LRT, etc, will only add to Hamilton's flabbiness and weakness. You talk about great cities like Paris and and Boston, guess what, they all PAY more in taxes then they get back in handouts.

They are strong because they give to others, not because others give to them. That's the reality and there's nothing you can do to refute this. Ryan, the truth is staring you in the face, but you have to be willing to accept it. The only way back to greatness is through suffering and hard work, not by ripping other taxpayers off.

When you embrace this simplistic theory as your own, which I encourage, you will help put this city back on it's feet again. Here's hoping.

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By shaddupsevenup (registered) | Posted October 03, 2009 at 10:59:25

I was at the meeting of the Civic League and have attended a Board meeting as well as a couple of unofficial subcommittee meetings regarding the undertaking of what sounds like it will be a massive survey that will be done in at least two stages.

I was heartened to see that almost all the wards were represented by citizens, except for one, which I think was Ward 15 (correct me if I'm wrong - I didn't take any notes.)

It was essentially a type of Meet and Greet, we got to meet Larry and the Board members and find out a bit about them, and then we were encouraged to introduce ourselves, say what ward we were from, what our concerns were, and what skills we brought to the table. It started out well, but then seemed to devolve a bit into side issues such as transit. In the end, I felt a bit frustrated because I had an incomplete picture of what we, as a group, might be capable of. A couple of attendees were questioning Pomerantz near the end of the meeting what came next. Pomerantz didn't say anything specific, and basically left it up to us, as a group, as to when we'd meet again.

I wish the discussion had been guided a bit, instead of allowing some people to go off on unrelated tangents about their own personal beefs. Yes, I get that there are a multitude of issues, but how about describing to us what you can do, and what you think the solutions are? I think there is a fine line that has to be adhered to, or people will go off, and start demonizing certain councillors or city workers. This City has enough formal and informal beef sessions. Let's have a bouquet session. I hate to sound all Obamaish, but I'm tired of the eternal defeatist, nothing-will-ever-change attitude here.

My hope for the Hamilton Civic League is that they are able to engage and guide citizens into productive, positive, solution-oriented discussions that foment real change. Pomerantz hasn't convinced me that he's capable of leading us in that direction, so until he does, I'm hanging onto my thirty bucks.

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By J Morse (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2009 at 11:32:34

I wasn't at the entire meeting, but I must agree with shaddupsevenup's concerns.

In order to be effective, a group must be organized. Organization requires consistent leadership direction, during and outside of meetings. Let's encourage the HCU to focus on the voting message and get it out to the people of Hamilton. Do one thing and do it well, then expand the mandate.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2009 at 20:04:38

I used to be a fairly ardent supporter of the idea of seeing a GCL-type organization set up here, but after seeing how the city of Guelph, supported by the GCL, handled the issue of the Hanlon Creek Business Park I got pretty disenchanted. Despite all the wonderful work they've done in terms of "smart growth" and "sustainability", the city is still insistant on suing dirt-poor protesters for fantastic sums of money and accusing them of outlandish crimes ("extortion") for daring to peacefully obstruct development on environmentally sensitive lands on the very edge of town (land in fact large annexed from Puslinch). Sounds a lot like the Red Hill Valley or Aerotropolis to me.

I support an idea like this in principle, but I reserve judgement until I see them in action. It could be a tremendously beneficial for local democracy, but it could also devote a whole lot of effort to relatively inefficient lobbying and politicking initiatives when what really needs doing is direct action in the communities. Hamilton does, definitely, need to be be able to more effectively muscle our municiple government, but if we're just adding another veil of democratic legitimacy to the same old development-driven policies, then what's the point?

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2009 at 21:11:46

just an FYI, there is the first working group meeting taking place within two weeks. It was on the PowerPoint at the meeting, though it wasn't verbally emphasized, as it should have been.

When the date/time is finalized, I'll endeavour to post it on here too (in the 'events' section) if that's helpful.

Anyone on the e-mail list from the first meeting, or signed up on the online membership form (even if you hold onto your money till you figure if you want to be an active part of this) will receive an e-mail about the date and time as well.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted October 05, 2009 at 23:48:44

The details of the next meeting are up now along with our long-term plan and timeline.

For those who were asking for them, the PowerPoint and agenda from the first meeting is also available on the site:

http://hamiltoncivicleague.org/index.php...

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 06, 2009 at 11:44:55

Undustrial, The goals of the league are non-partisan and not issue specific.

The goals are to increase voter turnout and to increase the knowledge voters are armed with before making their decision.

This is not about lobbying or going after specific causes.

It is about engaging the citizens, reminding us that the power is in our hands, and giving us the information we need in order to vote for what we really want.

My advice for those who are unsure about the success of the league is to get involved now - don't wait and see what happens. At a minimum you'll receive updates and information that can help inform your vote. Even better, you may be able to help inform others' votes. Apathy is killing our city.

The election is only a year away - if you wait now, you'll end waiting through another election term!

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By shaddupsevenup (registered) | Posted October 06, 2009 at 13:49:21

Thanks Meredith. I think I can part with my 35 bucks now.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2009 at 17:35:14

My concern is, simply, that whatever civic organization is formed is directly responsive to the needs of the people, rather than be co-opted by politicians and developers. Otherwise we're only justifying the cynicism and apathy which plague our city.

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