TTC Board meetings (not to mention meetings of various Committees of Toronto Council) often entail a series of presentations by members of the public. In Toronto parlance, these are “deputations”. Some of these are entertaining, some are heartbreaking, and some are, let’s face it, an ongoing soapbox for a few regulars who can be counted on to show up at every meeting. I used to fall into that category, at least until I got my own much larger soapbox with this site.
It is no secret that some members of boards and committees regard this as a huge waste of time. It is common to see many of them wander out of the room, hold press scrums, consult their email, and generally ignore what the poor, ignorant public might have to say. Moves to restrict speaking time, normally five minutes, to three, or to limit a speaker to one presentation regardless of the number of items they might wish to address, are not unusual.
They are also wrong, very wrong.
Without question, some public presentations are little more than hobby-horse repetitions of standard speeches. We see the same sort of thing in some of the comment threads on this and other sites. Unless they are abusive or utterly beyond redemption with a bit of careful editing, I let them through. For public addresses at City Hall, the Chair can intervene if a deputant gets abusive and, in a worst case, someone might be barred from speaking because they cannot be trusted to maintain civility. However, such speakers are quite rare among the much larger number who might appear on an important issue. If a group of speakers appears on an issue, the Chair can gently suggest that they avoid duplicating their presentations.
Let’s turn the tables around and see what we in the public gallery get to suffer through as “informed debate” at some meetings.
Management makes extensive presentations that are rarely challenged, even when they are, shall we say, misinformed. This is particularly difficult if their time comes after the public has spoken, and there is no opportunity for rebuttal or questioning unless a board/committee member knows enough to ask the right questions. Technology helps in this regard, and it’s not uncommon these days for the public gallery to send tweets and emails to members in the hope they can work it into their own material. But politicians hate to look stupid, and they tend to ask questions only if they already know the answer. Moreover, they really (with few exceptions) don’t like to wash the dirty laundry in public. On occasion, the gallery knows more about the issue and its history than the management, but it’s not our role to kibitz from the sidelines.
Board members might speak at length on matters of which they know little. Most Board members mean well, but they are limited by what they are told, not to mention by political agendas dictating that some issues be left quietly alone. Debates may go on for hours with a more-heat-than-light character that drives informed observers bonkers. But we don’t get to call “time”.
What’s more, the whole process works against dedicated members who might legitimately be seeking better information for policy decisions because most requests inevitably turn into a report that might appear, eventually, and might address the questions asked.
Particularly galling are instances where a board or committee member, or even the Mayor, openly ridicules or insults members of the public claiming that they don’t know what they are talking about, or that they have a hidden agenda, or that they are simply too negative for our enlightened age. There is no right of rebuttal from the public gallery, nothing to match the “point of privilege” any elected member has to challenge such statements. There are blogs and Twitter, but their reach is only as good as the popularity of each writer, and often we’re preaching to the choir.
I know I have really hit home when I get complaints from “official” sources that I have been too hard on someone. At least they are reading, if only because they suspect others who are less inclined to view their works favourably are reading too.
And so, gentle politicians (and the “public members” who, wink wink, nudge nudge, are not also “politicians”) imagine that you wanted to come before a body peopled by, well, we the people. You should sign up well in advance, and you will be included on a list of presenters that we might eventually get around to hearing. If the item is only “for information”, don’t even bother unless you have a friend at court who will hold it over as an “action item” on a future agenda. Come back another day.
You will sit through all manner of debates that have nothing to do with your topic. This may suck all of the air out of the room both for media attention and for the endurance of the members. We might even artificially drag out debate in the hope that the more contentious of you get tired and leave. When you finally speak, one or two of us might pay attention, and even less often, you might even get a question to clarify something you said. The question might even be relevant, as opposed to a thinly disguised rant imputing your utter ignorance. Don’t try to interrupt. Took a day off work to attend, did you? Feel like it’s been a waste of your time?
There are politicians we tired of years ago. They have their pet transit projects. No matter what the topic at hand, they will work their hobby-horses into their speeches. They happily insult people from any ward beyond their own as foreigners who just don’t understand their manifest destiny. They blather on forever about issues nobody cares about. Well, at least in our world, their blather only goes for five minutes, three if we’re feeling churlish. We will not ask them any questions, but thank them politely while thinking why do we have to listen to this crap?
If that’s not bad enough, imagine that the board you wish to address is populated by allies of a hostile administration whose idea of public participation is to fill bellies with hot dogs and beer, but ignore the real work of improving the city for all. Who terrorize well-meaning staff to avoid saying anything that doesn’t fit with the political program. Who feel that every deputant is a paid shill for a trade union, or a silver-spoon lefty who has the time to sit through city hall meetings because they don’t even need, let alone have, a job.
Four years of that, and you would ask why anyone would bother to show up – only the really dedicated, the nerds, the transit groupies, the people for whom the transit environment is their one chance for a bit of public exposure. People who speak rarely, maybe never before, but have something worth listening to, they expect a modicum of attention and decorum at their presentations. One or two experiences at City Hall, and they will stay away, maybe watching the meeting online provided there’s nothing better to do.
Boards like the TTC or the City’s Budget Committee must be green with envy looking at Metrolinx. It is not subject to the Municipal Act (or equivalent provisions in the City of Toronto Act). It meets infrequently, and the agenda is just chock full of good news. If there is any dissent on the Board, it happens in private, and I suspect that it’s rare. Public presentations which might upset the carefully orchestrated agenda timetable and openly challenge policies and assumptions simply do not occur. Bliss descends over all on those occasions when the Board actually meets in public.
A word of caution to Board and Committee members who might throttle public input. Toronto has a long history of public participation, and some agencies even do quite a good job of listening. If that’s not your cup of tea, you’re in the wrong place.
I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
[From The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan whose works on occasion cannot be distinguished from the proceedings at City Hall.]