I don’t know if you’ve ever attended City Hall Council meetings or worse still read the minutes. But it’s a lot like watching a soccer game. The ball gets kicked and passed around a lot and then every so often there’s a great play, a missed opportunity, and eventually a gooooaaal that generates a lot of excitement and gets replayed on the evening news. It is, however, a necessary part of municipal governance and one in which I look forward to participate despite it all. Call me a process and policy wonk if you want.
But what excites me the most about becoming a councillor is the work I expect to do at the ward level and the civic engagement with the residents and businesses. Although a City Councillor owes a duty of care to the City and to act in its best interest with respect to the big issues, it’s the local ward issues and how they get resolved that affect residents the most. Unfortunately, very few of us get the opportunity to participate in the decision making process because we are seldom invited to do so. When was the last time you were invited to a town hall meeting outside an election period? I can’t remember the last time I received an invitation except for those awfully written letters from City Planning inviting us to discuss the next condo development project. There’s got to be more to town hall meetings than arguing the merits of the latest condo proposal.
Before registering as a candidate for this election, I held my own little town hall meeting at the Legion Hall on Jutland Road in May. I called it a focus group session which consisted of a 60 minute presentation with PowerPoint slides. I wanted to know if my views and ideas on transit and development resonated with people. I was fortunate enough to attract 35 people – some friends, some family, some neighbours and some complete strangers too. Truth be told, the first 10 minutes were really tough not knowing if the participants would relate with what I had to say. And a lot of what I had to say was devoted to context – specifically, how Toronto went from a small military outpost in 1793 to the metropolis is today. It wasn’t so much a political history but rather a developmental history on why Toronto and the GTA developed the way it did. Knowing historical context allows us to make sense of the decisions we’ve made and the challenges we face going forward. But that’s not the point I want to make here.
The point is that 10 minutes into my presentation, my audience was still very engaged and attentive and that’s when I settled down and got the confidence to see it through to the end. And the reason they were engaged and attentive seems quite clear. People still like the human interaction amidst the wired and digital world in which we live. We all live busy lives what with work, children, maintaining a residence, etc… Having so much media and information at our keyboard finger tips seems to exasperate and overwhelm us that it’s hard to know where to even begin researching our favourite topics let alone municipal politics and local development. So when someone is able to decipher information and present it in a clear and concise way, people listen and appreciate it because fundamentally, we all care how our neighbourhoods develop. So that has to be one of the biggest roles a councillor can play – keeping the ward residents informed on what’s happening at the community and city levels and more importantly, why. And not just on his or her website, Facebook, quarterly newsletters, and so on. But live and in living colour.
There are six identifiable residential neighbourhoods in Ward 5: Eatonville, Etobicoke Centre, The Kingsway, Sunnylea, The Queensway, and Sherway – all of which have their own history, character, and interests. As Ward 5 Councillor, I would hold a town hall meeting every month in one of these neighbourhoods to keep them abreast of the latest municipal issues and, on the flip side, to hear from them. That means that residents of each neighbourhood would have a chance to engage with me at a town hall meeting twice per year. What’s important to note too is that not all residents would have to attend. That wouldn’t really be practical actually. But a critical mass of two or three hundred concerned and interested residents would surely be enough for me to get the pulse of the neighbourhood and for them to pass on the information to their neighbours. Add a little local media coverage and word will get around.
I wrote a blog on September 1st about the Development Permit System and how we could use this form of planning to take control of our community development. Town Hall meetings would be the perfect forum to keep Ward 5 residents informed of the progress of this initiative along with many other local and city wide issues. Vote for me and I’ll bring back the Town Hall to a hall near you!