A new citizens' advisory committee in Burlington seeks to develop best practices the city can use to do a better job of engaging the public.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 12, 2010
A new initiative seeks to engage Burlingtonians more directly in shaping the future of the city. Shape Burlington calls itself "an independent citizens' committee to identify ways to improve civic engagement. We have a dynamic team of over 30 committed citizens comprising a Steering Committee and working groups to lead a community consultation process."
Now working in partnership with Community Development Halton and MASS LBP, Shape Burlington started with a request by Mayor Cam Jackson to establish an advisory committee on civic engagement. The group receives some public funding but is administered independently by its steering committee to carry out its Terms of Reference.
The two co-chairs are John Boich and Walter Mulkewich. Boich is a retired superintendent with the Halton District School Board, and Mulkewich is a former Mayor of Burlington.
Through policy research, meetings with city staff, all members of council and representatives of a variety of community organizations, three public workshops and online comments, Shape Burlington is working on a report that they hope to deliver to the Mayor, Council and the public in early April.
The report will recommend best practices for the city to improve the extend and quality of public consultation and dialogue as it develops policies.
RTH contacted Shape Burlington, and Mulkewich was kind enough to respond to our queries. He may be uniquely qualified to comment on the current issues in Burlington: when he was Mayor, he set in motion a lot of the policy initiatives that have resulted in Burlington developing more urban, progressive characteristics.
Asked to what extent he thinks the current public unrest has to do with fear about what these changes mean to Burlington's traditional form and values, Mulkewich responded that the issue is common to urban areas across North America.
I am not sure how much unrest there is currently on Burlington and whether it is more than it was when I was Mayor. We certainly had issues then. Certainly there have some issues which have arisen in the past few years which have caused some controversy and generated some complaints about how effectively City Hall communicates and consults with its citizens. I believe that this is one reason that the Mayor wanted to have a Committee look at civic engagement.
He added that one of Shape Burlington's terms of reference is the 1997 Report of The Community Based Government Citizen Committee, which was delivered near the end of Mulkewich's mayoralty. Most of the recommendations from that report were never adopted.
Mulkewich is concerned that civic engagement is in decline. "[T]he democratic deficit and information deficit is an issue that citizens and government are dealing with across Canada and USA and many municipalities are trying to find new and better ways to communicate and to engage its citizens."
He suggests that "the major decline of local traditional news media" is "creating a huge information and communication vacuum." Another contributing factor is the decline in number and participation of citizens groups; he adds, "those that exist tend to be single issue."
One such group that has attracted a lot of attention recently is Save Our Waterfront, a group dedicated to preserving Burlington's waterfront from City's official plan to intensify the waterfront with new mid- or high-rise buildings.
Mulkewich argues that Save Our Waterfront "have legitimate concerns both about policy decisions and the effectiveness of community consultation in decision making."
He notes that there's a case to be made that the plan to intensify the Old Lakeshore Precinct was developed without sufficient public engagement. The matter is complex, involving issues of historical buildings and the desire to increase public access to the waterfront, which is inaccessible now but could be remedied with effective redevelopment.
Mulkewich still supports intensification, noting, "in fact that area was zoned seven stories when I was Mayor, which I still support." The city proposes increasing building heights beyond that, "and I wish they had not done that. However, this group would go back to basically no intensification in that precinct, which likely cannot happen."
Nevertheless, given the lack of adequate public consultation, he believes "a watchdog Citizen Committee is a good thing" because it pushes the city to do the necessary public outreach and dialogue to get consensus on a redevelopment plan.
(Note: RTH has attempted twice to contact Save Our Waterfront, but has not received any response from the group.)
With the 2010 municipal election fast approaching, RTH asked Mulkewich about the perennial issue of lower voter turnout.
Low voter turn out has always puzzled me and obviously this is a key question in considering civic engagement. No magic answer. Voter turn out at municipal elections has been low for many years for some reason. Recently provincial and federal turnout is also declining - so it is troubling.
A common response to low voter turnout is to complain that voters are too apathetic to bother getting engaged. Mulkewich responds:
I don't think that citizens are apathetic. I think they are not sufficiently informed and engaged because the system is not engaging or providing good information.
He adds that the prevailing neoliberal ideology of the past few decades has "put an emphasis on individualism and 'what is in it for me' rather than a more community-based ideology".
The "convergence of entertainment and news and politics" is also part of the problem, in which "an interest story or confrontational sound bites" displace "informed civic dialogue."
He offered as a recent example the coverage given to Toronto Mayoral candidate Adam Giambrone's personal indiscretions. "Yes, Adam made mistakes, but the guy also had substance on the policy issues of the day."
He concludes that there are no easy answers, but the time has come to "do voting and politics and media differently."
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