Dear new Councillors,
First, let me just say: congratulations. Municipal campaigns are long and draining, often divisive, and usually ignored by the media as their attention is focused on the mayoral race (even though your vote on Council has the same weight as the Mayor’s).
Last week, I wrote a short note entitled “An Open Letter to Don Cherry”. It must have struck a chord with people, because it has since been reposted on blogs across the city, inspired hundreds of comments on Facebook (plus over two thousands ‘likes’), and a few people have even asked permission to print a copy and drop it off at Cherry’s house.
Some readers may have liked the letter because they had felt personally attacked by Cherry, either as a left-leaning pinko or as cyclist. But I think most of the readers appreciated the letter simply because I criticised Cherry’s attempt to polarize our City Hall. Polarisation may work well on a hockey rink, but at City Hall it is a foolish approach that ignores the complexity of any given issue and discourages intelligent debate.
Very few issues actually play out on the left/right spectrum. Safety for cyclists is not a left/right issue, nor a downtown/suburban issue. It’s a public health, public safety and environmental issue. Our current debate about public transit is not a left/right issue. Both sides are proposing large investments in public transit. In fact, the typical left/right roles are reversed, with Rob Ford pushing for more expensive infrastructure and the left saying we can’t afford subways.
There will always be people like Don Cherry who prefer to see Council as some kind of fight between two groups. The media, in particular, will encourage you to take sides and feed into the conflict. Simplistic binary conflict is good for newspapers. But it’s bad for democracy.
Polarisation often leads us to a point where two sides are simply spewing spin, rather than intelligent arguments. It becomes a war of slogans (“war on the car”) rather than an exchange of ideas (‘How do we design an intelligent transportation plan in the city, in a way that is practical, fair, sustainable and respectful of the different types of neighbourhoods we have in Toronto, listening to both those who want subways and those who want surface rail”).
As you begin your career as a City Councillor, I just wanted to write this short letter to you encouraging you not to pick sides. Don’t join a team. Try to build relationships with each of the other 43 Councillors, and with the Mayor. We need new heroes at City Hall. But not partisan heroes. We need consensus heroes. We need Councillors who can pull together alliances and coalitions based on trust, compromise and listening. Listening to voters, experts, local activists, and each other.
City Hall is a wonderful place. Local Councils are theoretically the most inclusive and accessible level of government. And the beauty of City Hall is that there is room for 45 opinions, not just 2 or 3 as we find at Queens Park or Ottawa where politicians are instructed how to vote.
The first six votes at City Hall last week were: 21-24, 24-21, 17-28, 26-19, 29-16, 39-6
The first six votes in Parliament this year were: 142-114, 142-114, 142-114, 148-114, 148-114, 148-114.
Polarisation is the the enemy of healthy collaborative decision making. Turning any issue into a black and white set of two opinions simply moves us further away from the consensus option that often lies in the middle. More importantly, polarisation and sloganeering deprives the city of the dialogues we need to hear so we can all learn more about the issues that effect us.
Thank you for your time, and good luck with your new job.