Engaging Citizens to Help Shape Burlington

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.

Civic Engagement in Crisis

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."

Save Our Waterfront

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.)

Low Voter Turnout

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."

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. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 12, 2010 at 19:11:00

It's easy to write off people who don't vote as apathetic, but that just sidesteps the issue. People who don't vote have reasons for not doing so - just ask 'em. "They're all trying to screw us anyway" may not be the most eloquent indictment of the electoral system, but if that's how a massive chunk of the population feels, we need to take it into account, if we want to be serious about democracy. Let's face it, if ~40% of the population didn't vote in the last election, and less than 23% actually voted for the ruling Conservative party.

People honestly feel that Parliaments and City Halls don't represent them - and all too often they're right. It's amazing how much higher turnout is in areas, such as in Europe, where people have more confidence in their democracies.

I hope this consultation goes well. Southern Ontario needs a lot more of this kind of thing

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By Haltonite (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2010 at 08:35:00

I have lived in Burlington and I have done business in that community and stll have interests there. Jackson is on the right track and although I respect Boich, Mulkewich is a spent force who is all ideology and nothing more....bad choice for Chair.

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By SarahBanks (registered) - website | Posted February 13, 2010 at 21:52:56

Ryan! Thanks so much for writing this. I'm truly shocked that you've made two unsuccessful attempts to contact Save Our Waterfront. I'm on the Steering Committee. I'll check in with our Chair, Marianne Meed Ward and see if she received your messages.

I too wrote about Shape Burlington on my blog, just yesterday. http://sillpillow.wordpress.com/2010/02/...

I do have to take issue with this statement of Mulkewich's, referring to Save Our Waterfront:

"However, this group would go back to basically no intensification in that precinct, which likely cannot happen."

This is simply not true. This is not NIMBYism at play. Our main goal was the establishment of a formalized citizens' advisory committee on the waterfront and we have just recently acheived this. The City is currently reviewing applications for local citizens to sit on this committee. There are a lot of forward-thinking, creative, visionary types in this city who have plenty of ideas that have not occurred to the current Council and many of these ideas most definitely include intensification. We know we're up against the Places To Grow legislation. We know there will need to be compromise at the end of the day. We know that some heritage buildings may need to be torn down. We just want the people of this city to play a much more significant role in how these decisions are made.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 13, 2010 at 23:02:11

NIMBY - such a dirty word when it comes to municipal politics. I agree, it can get rather taxing at times when you're trying to accomplish larger goals (nobody wants a methadone clinic in their back yard, but nobody wants junkies on the streets, either). But it shouldn't be used to dismiss people's legitimate concerns. People who live next-door to a proposed project have a lot more at stake than someone living on the other side of town - that needs to count for something when decisions are being made.

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By Marianne Meed Ward, Chair, Save Our Wate (anonymous) | Posted February 14, 2010 at 07:52:04

I was surprised to hear you tried to contact Save Our Waterfront - unsuccessfully. I have no record of any email, phone call, Twitter or Facebook posting from you.
Sorry we didn't get a chance to connect because I would have corrected a misperception communicated by Walter Mulkewich.
Save Our Waterfront is not opposed to "intensification." There is a huge range of intensification - two-story townhouses replacing single storey buildings is but one example.
Save our Waterfront supports the right kind of intensification in the right place, and feel, as Walter does, that 10-15 storeys in this are of our waterfront is the wrong kind intensification. Low-rise buildings, and townhouses or joined businesses - I think a lot of people in Burlington would support that, particularly if the prime heritage buildings in that area could be preserved. And this type of construction qualifies as "intensification."
We're grateful City Hall listened to our request for a citizen's advisory committee on the waterfront, and we know many creative ideas will come from residents on the best way to intensify this area.
Marianne Meed Ward,
Save Our Waterfront

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By Concerned (anonymous) | Posted February 20, 2010 at 19:48:22

If the citizens in Burlington want their voice heard and believe that the majority should decide what goes on in this city I suggest we make politicians obsolete when it comes to making any major decisions or expenditures. With the advent of the internet I am quite capable of voting on these issues in the comfort of my own home very easily I no longer need a politician to vote on my behalf. They frequently seem to be voting for whats in their best interests, not that of the citizens of Burlington. If the citizens had voted on the numerous questionable decisions council have made in the past I believe the results would have been quite different. Some examples are as follows. Voting against WalMart on Fairview council cost the taxpayers of this city millions in legal fees and lost tax revenues not to mention the jobs in the store and in the construction of the store, had WalMart not won. The Pier to nowhere and the $30,000,000 plus Performing arts building don't appear to have been a big hit either. The nation leading collapse of the new home sales in this city can be traced directly to policies passed by this council. This City has now the most onerous, time wasting and most costly approval process in the country. We can do better.....

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By AlexCavity (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2012 at 21:50:33

You cannot claim to suffer from low voter turnout when not enough is being done to educate and engage the community. You cannot expect residents to automatically know what civic engagements are available, and efforts need to be placed to get them voting.

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