Talking then Walking

Walking…

I spent the afternoon of December 1st hiking through the first big snow fall of the year.  It was a wonderful day to explore the city’s streets, shops, department stores, parking lots and art galleries.  During my day I visited five neighbourhoods, City Centre Square, Heritage, Cathedral, Downtown and the Warehouse District.  

I discovered  shoes that invoked the style of the 80s, sailing adventure and childhood colouring books at coda on Albert Street. The shoes looked old, genuinely new, youthful and familiar like walking back into my kindergarden classroom.

Westons bakery looked like the chilly child of Andalusia and Chicago, and that baby smelt soooo good. 

I walked treacherous side walks, where  informal paths already hardened into the snow; going here, then there.  Ice covered driveways made my boots drift towards the street.  Stranger pedestrians made me feel uneasy and delighted, in a case by case basis as we crossed paths. Just off the sidewalks, shop clerks were helpful with camera lenses, comic books  hospital catering and stamping letters with wax. 

Patrick Close’s forest place in Brittany provided the backgrounder to my day: mystery, shelter, beauty, lore, human structures and natural forces. 

I felt sorry for lonely furniture: the old boys gathered, sporting new fluffy snow topped hats, and stood guard behind the salvation army thrift store’s barbed wire fence.  Visions of their past employment, in warm living rooms hoisting up the television from a fiery shag carpet or collecting drinks at a party, swirled in my head.  

  I even found  images capturing Saskatchewan residents’ love of sport and the olympian efforts they make to enjoy it, especially when conditions are tough.

…then Talking

I talked my way into adventure by attending a public lecture: Local Government and Democracy: State of the Nation (I realize now I must be more diligent mentioning these events beforehand) hosted by the Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy.  The discussion featured Dr. Andrew Sancton, Dr. Joe Garcea (live in video from Saskatoon), Mr. Bob Linner and Ms. Sherry Magnuson.  The presentations from Dr. Sancton (Western) and Dr. Garcea (Uof S) provided the framework for municipal governance, the roles it plays  across the country and in Saskatchewan in particular.  Mr. Linner and Ms. Magnuson related their experiences from working in municipal administration in Regina and Kindersley respectively. 

There was some interesting discussion on an issue I’ve brough up before here, political participation, especially during elections, and public debate.  There was some discussion on why turnouts are low which Dr. Garcea summarized as being related to the competitiveness of mayoral contests and the presence of highly controversial issues, including plebiscites and referenda. Indeed referenda were given as a solution to increasing turnout by posing issues that better engage ( or was it enrage…) the public. 

Mr. Linner continued on voter turnout stating lower voting levels are attributed to municipalities shirking their levers of power by seeking provincial or federal government funding.  This process of seeking finances above more autonomy to raise their own revenue, with new taxation powers for example, confuses the public’s understanding of  municipal government’s role and thus its relevance.

When it came to public participation in elections Mr. Linner was less convinced the percentage mattered. In his experience, people respond directly to their satisfaction with services provided and people will organize only if some service is lacking.  A low turnout suggests, in this conception, a content electorate, so content with their government in fact, that elections go unnoticed.       

Ms. Magnuson, Chief Administrative Officer of Kindersley, emphasized education and capacity building in order to provide services at the large town level. A wonderful example she shared was her experience helping to create a youth council in her community.  Made up of grade 8, 9, and 10s, the youth councilors hold a monthly public meeting, participate on committees and manage a small budget.   

In question period, I asked the panel (I’m paraphrasing here) if they were aware of studies that address the effectiveness of public forums/debates,  and generally how relevent, the presenters felt, that type of discourse was in an election.

Well, apparently it’s not that important.  Dr. Sancton began by saying academically, the value or role played by public debate was not well-studied.  He felt, however, that  public debate was a ritual for the media: where few voters actually make their decisions based on a candidates debate performance and more focus is put on, for example, that all the candidates attended rather than on what they said. Dr. Garcea continued that train of thought describing debates as ‘more fire than light’.  He also questioned who attends these events and if the people who do attend really represent the majority view of citizens.  Later,  Dr. Garcea said in his experience, policies or projects without consultation processes often go unnoticed and once rolled out are more accepted by the public than the results or programs produced with public consultation. 

For me this clearly illustrated the idea that administration can be hampered by consultation, despite their fine words to the contrary, when the end results may have caused but a stir from the slumbering masses without the headache.

Ms. Magnuson added that in Kindersley they’ve gone towards social networking to get their message out and create public discourse.

There was not enough time for me to address these above ideas at the meeting.  But, although slightly discouraged, I found an alley in Dan Perrons who chatted with me after the meeting.  Mr. Perrons felt strongly that voter turnout and participation was important to democracy and wasn’t a meter of service provision as Mr. Linner stated nor simply a political football for the media.  Public input is key in sharing ideas and working with governments as they look to create new policy.

Public debates make candidates accountable in ways no one-on-one conversation can.  It gives other candidates a chance to challenge statements and gives voice to citizens to do the same.  Ideas are exchanged in multiple directions, chewed up by diverse subjective agents, and reintroduced.  Neighbours gather together, in a space, which is not always a regular occurence in some neighbourhoods, and see each other.

Ms. Magnuson mentions social networking, but for me that’s just another tool to send the same information that’s on the city website or in the news paper.  It can be an important way of spreading the basic candidate  information and election dates, poll locations and registration facts, but does it create a discourse between candidate and constituent?  For me, that’s a clear no.

I’ll finish by saying my overview doesn’t come close to covering all the topics discussed or points made.  There is likely a great deal of subtlety or nuance that escaped me in the presenters arguments. Which is why this sort of discourse, a public forum, is hard to report objectively, its much better experienced in person.     

Thanks for barring with my wacky walky-talky day

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Talking then Walking

5 thoughts on “Talking then Walking

  1. jeff says:

    thanks for talking about this public lecture. i didn’t know about it beforehand, but i wouldn’t have been able to go anyway because i work during those hours. the school of public policy should have recorded it and have it streaming video or availabel as a vodcast . i kown that probably costs money and server space and so on, but

    btw, how many people attended? do you know if any establisehd news media people or other bloggers were there?

    re: bob linner’s comments on low turnout – i disagree, i don’t think it’s that people are content enough; i think it’s that they are not discontent enough for long enough

    re: public debates – the ones that i have seen in regina are far too polite, too much like information sessions; i don’t find them heat nor fire nor light – more like a warm glow of a dimmable bedside lamp that might help a toddler get to sleep so he/she knows there are no scary things in the room

    re: social networking – it’s too passive, people viewing a facebook page or twitter on the council info, “ahh boring, let’s at the pics of my friends drunk at the bar last night, rotflmao!!”

  2. jeff says:

    when i looked at my comment on bob linner’s content-city-resident theory, i thought to myself i didnt’ do my theory justice

    i hear people talk constantly about poor city services, hihg property taxes, overpolicing, underpolicing, rampant east end growth, big box stores, poor snow removal, poor planning, bad roads, expensive sewer and water charges, when i hear these comments, i don’t hear content people; nor do i hear serial complainers – i hear resigned people, shrugging of the shoulders, sighs, shaking heads – and i see people who notice a problem, then are distracted by events in their own lives that loom larger than bad roads or the “light blading” of their snowbound suburban street

    it’s not that they are content with city services and performance – it’s that the performance is not so bad that it dominates their mind such that they need to do something more about it than complain out loud to anyone inclined to listen

    1. martin g says:

      Thanks for your comments jeff.

      First of all, the meeting was held in the window room at the old Campus on College Ave, a very nice venue but small. I would say there were about 15-20 people in Regina and a similar number in Saskatoon (there was a large flat screen TV showing the Saskatoon audience). The audience looked made up of academics, elderly people and students in the school of public policy. There weren’t any journalists I recognized (that’s in Regina, I don’t know who was in Saskatoon but their composition looked similar to those sitting around me). Two former council candidates were there and they both asked questions, I believe one of them was Heather McIntyre.

      The organizers didn’t mention if the meeting was being recorded.

      In regards to politeness at public debates/meetings I think your quite right that they are largely a tame affair. In my experience people do not get into shouting matches or heckle one another very often. I think that is good, but my sense is, that your talking about passion more generally and that perhaps people don’t put others’ feet to the coals as it were. My only concern with that is, from what I’ve seen in meetings or especially at city council, it can be a lot of the same faces here in Regina bringing up issues. In council, for example, it seems like they’ve tuned-out some people who regularly present or attend, filing their concerns under ‘extreme’ or ‘one issue.’ Regina’s a small place and people do take barbs personally, councilors included. If I were to start ripping a councillor at some meeting, I wouldn’t expect them to forget it a month later when I decided to present to council.

      Tone is important and you’ve likely heard the term ‘respectful debate’ flying around enough to make your head spin. But that’s how city hall wants it and if you want them to listen, you’ve got to play by their rules.

      On performance and content citizens I think your right, there is a lot of discontent. But I wonder if it is over issues that really affect people’s lives sometimes or just something to complain about. I’ll give an example; snow clearance, huge issue, but those people living on a cul-de-sac in Whitmore Park who moan about only getting one scrapping a year, have they ever got more than that? Is it that service is worse now compared to some past experience? Or like my parents; they have they been saying that for 20 years yet have not done anything to make a change. Mr. Linner would say council should raise the issue of snow removal and explain to the public, “we’ll give you this service, but here’s where we need X dollars of taxes from you to do it.” Like the process happening right now with waste disposal. His position is the issues must come from the people, the administration is there to provide solutions.

      Of course there are differences of opinion and power too: my concept of sprawl and waste is another citizen’s (probably a much more wealthy, established citizen at that) dream home; fueling growth, creating jobs and expanding the tax base.

      Your absolutely right about people having other priorities. People who have the most to lose aren’t making presentations to council every other week because they’re struggling to live. Usually anti-poverty advocates and concerned citizens like Jim Elliot are the only ones who try to get marginalized peoples’ voices heard. The question goes back to if some of these advocates become considered ‘one note’ or ‘fringe’ thinkers at council? Then there’s the question of if the issues come from the people, as I said Mr. Linner expressed at the meeting, than who characterizes the issues for council? Certainly you hear a lot about phone calls from constituents at council but I wonder how many phone calls come from Harvard Developments or the Chamber of Commerce.

      I could go on, and on but I’ll quickly address your last point about facebook and social networking. I’ve never been too keen on online communication because I find conversation in person more enlightening. Like this response, leaving you a long, tangled reply that is not permeable, to allow new ideas, but static and narrow. Instant messaging or micro-blog size communication can’t replace live interaction, particularly with complex issues.

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