This op-ed appeared in the Toronto Star on July 11th. I’ve included the amazing illustration by Lola Landekic, which was not included in the Star’s online version of the piece. I’ve also included a short update at the bottom.
One year ago, a slow summer afternoon was interrupted by a stream of unexpected phone calls. New signs had been installed in Scarborough’s Milliken Park stating “No kite flying allowed” and as the official spokesperson of the Toronto Kite Fliers Association, journalists were calling me for a quote.
The kite ban was an exaggerated response to genuine safety concerns that had been raised about the growing sport of “kite fighting” and the abrasive strings used by competitors. Most kite flying is completely harmless and the ban unfairly punished the majority who were flying safely. My initial comments were not positive in tone.
But what transpired over the following 10 months was truly inspiring. The situation could easily have turned into a polarised fight between those advocating for safety and those fighting for the freedom to fly kites. Instead, Councillor Chin Lee showed leadership by inviting everyone to the table to talk about the situation. Competitive kite fliers, recreational fliers, city staff and Councillor Lee gathered in a parks department office while members of the media waited outside, perhaps waiting for a glimpse of conflict.
But when we emerged, we proudly announced that consensus had been reached and that we would be collaborating on a new policy proposal to regulate competitive flying and lift the kite ban. Councillor Lee even flew a kite for the TV camera.
Eight months later, after further discussions, the new policy was presented to council’s parks committee. Committee meetings are a crucial part of the public consultation process, as citizens are invited to speak for five minutes on any item that appears on the agenda. I made a deputation at the meeting, supporting the new proposal and suggesting a few amendments. Other voices contributed as well, including helpful amendments from Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who does not even sit on the committee.
When the final policy reached city council, it passed unanimously without discussion. There was nothing left to debate. All stakeholders and parties were satisfied.
During this same time period, the mayor’s office was developing a proposal for new bike lanes in Toronto. Both the process and the outcome are strikingly dissimilar to the kite policy experience.
Key stakeholders were not consulted, requests for meetings went unanswered and plans were kept secret until the last moment. In fact, when the report finally went to committee the most contentious parts of the plan were proposed only after all public deputations had concluded, defeating the entire purpose of these public meetings. Existing bike lanes on Jarvis, Pharmacy and Birchmount were suddenly scheduled for removal — against the advice of city staff and without any public notice or discussion.
The Scarborough removals had been requested by the local representative, Councillor Berardinetti, who was elected on a platform that included the elimination of the lanes. So in her case, it could be argued that local residents have been given a chance to express their view. But the opposite is true on Jarvis Street. The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, was not involved and was informed only minutes before the vote. She and her constituents were robbed of the chance to prepare a response to the proposal.
When Councillor Mike Layton suggested a reasonable amendment that called for further public consultation, the committee surprisingly voted against it, essentially closing the door to any form of public dialogue and leading the way to an explosive debate at city council scheduled for this week.
These examples illustrate two distinct approaches to policy development. One brings people together, while the other is divisive. One seeks consensus while the other fuels conflict and polarization.
The sad irony is that the Jarvis vote is much more important than the kite policy. While the kite ban was an inconvenience for kite fliers, the Jarvis bike lane removal puts lives at risk. It’s much too important to be dealt with in such an exclusionary and insular manner.
When city council debates the Jarvis lane removal this week, councillors will not only be making a statement about whether or not they care about safe streets and public health. They will also be making a statement about whether they are committed to the democratic process at city hall.
Dave Meslin is a co-editor of Local Motion: The Art of Civic Engagement in Toronto, published by Coach House Press in 2010.
Update: On July 12 and 13, hundreds of cyclists attended City Council to witness the vote. Sadly, a majority of Councillors did not support the democratic process, and Councillor Wong-Tam’s motion to request consultation did not pass. In fact, in a strange twist, the motion was ruled “redundant” and was not even voted upon. In my 15 years as a municipal advocate, I’m not sure that I’ve ever witnessed such a trampling of democracy at City Hall.
Luckily, citizens don’t give up that easily. One week later, over a thousand cyclists participated in a protest ride along Jarvis – ending at City Hall. They were demanding a fair process and standing up for their right to be consulted and their right to have safe streets in Toronto. This fight has just begun. I’ll post more soon…..