Monday, July 15, 2024

Trickle-down democracy

We are not the first to think that 14,000 people governed by 18 municipal councils is a bit of over-representation. In MRC Pontiac, some municipal councillors represent as few people as could fit in a school bus.
There are, no doubt, reasonable arguments both for and against having so many elected representatives for so few constituents. But surely one of the arguments in support of it is the need for each little hamlet across the county to have its own seat at the table, its own voice in decision-making.
Fair enough. It sounds highly democratic. But that does not seem to be what we’re seeing.
What we’re seeing is ideas proposed at the MRC level to which all the mayors agree before their municipal councillors back home ever get wind of it. The current incinerator issue is a case in point. The very day the warden was laying out the proposal in public information sessions, we were told that 18 mayors were already on board.
It is standard practice all over the world to wave the promise of a few jobs in front of politicians to win their support. In a place as economically challenged as the Pontiac, it is like waving meat in front of a starving lion. Once you have the mayors on board, their councils will follow. And then it’s done. Whatever it is. Whatever its merits may or may not be.
Then, before any solid, objective information could be provided to inform the thinking of our municipal councillors, they were being pressed to vote on resolutions in support of the project. Some have chosen not to, but it seems many have gone along with the tide. It’s entirely possible that the supporters genuinely believe it is a good idea, but based on what information?
What we are left with is the apparent probability that we are being governed from the top in a kind of trickle-down democracy, the opposite of how it is meant to go.
If that’s the way things roll here in the Pontiac, why do we continue with the fiction that we need municipal councils? Why don’t we all save ourselves a pile of money and drop our municipal councils in favour of one Pontiac-wide council where all the decisions are being made anyway?
Except then we would need to look at the process by which those decisions are being made. If you have ever attended an MRC meeting, you will have seen by the glances exchanged among the mayors that they themselves often seem not quite sure what is going on, what resolution they are voting for or what its implications might be.
When taking a vote, the warden rarely even looks up to see if anyone has voted against the motion. One can only assume it is because the warden knows nobody has, because the resolutions have already been green-lighted at the private plenary session the week before. By the time it comes to the mayors’ table in a public meeting, it’s good to go. No need for discussion, which is why there isn’t any. And no need to wonder whether anyone will vote against it, because nobody ever does.
Why are our mayors unwilling to vote against a motion? Some may feel that as long as they do not throw their hand up to register a ‘yay’ vote, they at least cannot be accused of having supported it. Not so. As long as there are no ‘nays’, the vote will be counted as unanimously in favour. By this process, even half-baked ideas that have earned only half-hearted support can be presented as being unanimously supported by the mayors, making them complicit, perhaps unwittingly, in a process of rubber stamping whatever comes up.
Why do our mayors subject themselves month after month to the long meetings behind closed doors to discuss in private matters of public policy and the expenditure of public money that should be discussed in public as is done at every other level of government?
Why do they not insist that all meetings be held in public, with the provision that certain discussions can be moved temporarily into in-camera sessions when issues of privacy or security require it? Private discussions should be the exception, not the rule.
The public needs and deserves to hear the debates, the pros and cons, and see who among our elected representatives are for and who are against, and why, and where the compromises in the middle might be found.
This is simply our right. This is simply what a healthy local democracy would look like. And this is what we must absolutely have as a minimum if we want to ensure that our elected representatives are doing their level best on our behalf, and not simply going along to get along.
If we want to lift this poorest of poor parts of the province up, we are going to need to ensure our representatives are making the best decisions possible, and that starts with healing the process by which those decisions are made.
The legitimacy of our municipal councils derives from the role our mayors play at the MRC level, and the extent to which they engage our local councillors meaningfully in making decisions that flow upwards to shape county-wide decisions, not the other way around.
We call on our mayors to open the curtains and let the sun shine in. To have the courage of their own convictions. Even if they are in the minority, to take a stand for what they believe is right.

Charles Dickson


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