When the Going Gets Tough, Council Shouldn’t Get Going

By Jason Menard

It may be fair and balanced, but it doesn’t mean it’s right. And if Ward 4 councillor Stephen Orser advocates letting the citizens make the tough decisions, then perhaps it’s time for us to just abolish council altogether and let every city decision pass through a plebiscite or referendum.

If one of the leading advocates for full-time council is so ready to abdicate the responsibilities bestowed upon him, then maybe it’s time to let majority rule.

Actually, it would probably be a plurality. A plurality empowered to decide regardless of knowledge, information, big-picture perspective, or responsibility.

You see, decisions like these are what our councillors are paid to do. More importantly, it’s what we, as an electorate, have voted them in to do. When I cast my ballot in Ward 14, I didn’t do so hoping that the eventual winner would throw up his or her hands and say, “Well, this one’s tough. You choose.” But that’s what councillor Orser is suggesting as per a London Free Press column — and there’s no worry that his thoughts were taken out of context because he shared them on his Facebook page.

Me. And how ever many others vote. With whatever limited knowledge we have.

I’ve argued against the two existing ideas for a performing arts centre. I hesitate to call either of them proposals as they’re woefully thin on numbers and based on a business plan written in wishes and dreams. But if you asked me a simple question: ‘Do you want London to have a performing arts centre?’, my answer would be a resounding “yes.”

The challenge, and this is why we elect representatives, is to balance our wishes with reality. A simple plebiscite question would not do this complex issue justice.

If you ask me the real question: “Do you want London to have a performing arts centre? One built almost entirely on the public dollar, without any proof that there’s a need and even less proof that there will be a sustainable market that will ensure that this doesn’t become a financial millstone around the city’s neck for decades to come?”

Then my answer’s no.

But I have a feeling that’s not the question that’s going to be on Orser’s plebiscite.

It’s not enough to cover your ass. It’s not enough to put out a Web poll or add a plebiscite to an election ballot so that you can say, “Hey, it’s what you want. We knew better, but you guys told us in the plebiscite.”

That’s not representation. That’s abdication. And if that’s how council wants to act, then maybe it’s time to turn over the reins.

Let’s figure out a way so that all Londoners can cast a ballot through their TV sets, smart phones, and in their local Tim Hortons. Every Monday night, instead of our elected representatives going to council, they can join us in our weekly, “Let’s figure out what we’re doing this week” session.

And we can have a city run by half-truths, mobilized interest groups, and whatever’s the sexiest issue of the day.

You see, Councillor Orser, we already do have a living plebiscite in place: you. You, as Ward councillor going out and checking the pulse of your constituency. You actively gauging the interest level of all segments of your electoral district — not just the most active or vocal.

And if you need more time, I’m on your side. I have no problem with a billion-dollar corporation being overseen by a full-time council to provide social balance to the business decisions made by city staff.

And to me, your peer’s “Read the Report” is too facile of a retort — even though it’s used with supercilious regularity. To me, councillors need the time to not just read reports, but to go out into the community, educate their electorate, and make decisions based on the best needs of their wards, balanced with the broad-spectrum view of the city’s needs as a whole. It’s more than reading the report; it’s distilling that report and finding out how it will apply within your constituency.

The average voter doesn’t know how much is in the city’s coffers. Nor do they know what competing priorities are. If we say yes to a performing arts centre, what does that mean we have to say no to? Do we have the critical mass of citizens and tourists needed to keep this centre afloat every day for multiple years?

What exists that we are servicing? A market or a few people’s egos?

That’s why we elect a council. To do that work, to balance priorities and needs with available funds and risk, and to use every resource at his or her disposal to best represent the thoughts and wishes of his or her entire constituency.

Not to pass the buck when the going gets tough. If council doesn’t want to do their job, then either get out of the way and we’ll find someone else who will.

You may feel a plebiscite is fair and balanced, but what’s missing are terms like “informed,” “understanding of risks,” and “cognizant of long-term city-wide needs.”

That’s why we elect a council. To make those tough decisions, backed not only with the voter’s voice, but the whole range of knowledge with which council is supposed to be armed.

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