London Council Exists in Our Own Image

By Jay Menard

I admire London’s new mayor for reaching out to the community, but I’m concerned that asking the London Twitterverse about decorum is like polling cannibals about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle – they may be aware of the concept, but they certainly don’t practice it.

So it’s safe to say that any advice digested from that source be taken with a Goderich-sized grain of salt. After all, our existing council offers a pretty fair representation of London’s on-line community.

On July 28th, our mayor, Joni Baechler, put out a question on Twitter, “Everywhere I go, public is demanding [professional] conduct and productive action from council. What does Twitter say?”

Over the course of two Tweets I replied with the following: “I’d say council’s in our image. No surprise of unprofessional behaviour when many citizens snipe, insult, disrespect/We need to foster an environment of inclusion, listening, respect. Not top-down, but rather bottom up – as a community.”

After all, we elect people to represent us in the political world, so why should we be surprised when they emulate our behaviour in council chambers? And this isn’t just a municipal issue – we see hyperpartisanship and lack of respect permeating all levels of government.

One of London’s greatest problems is that many are sustained on a regular meal Polarized Certainty with a Side Order of Xenophobia. It’s particularly prevalent in on-line discourse, whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, or comments to news outlets. It’s not a problem that’s unique to London, but due to our city’s size, it’s particularly amplified.

There is comfort, stability, and satisfaction in the known. And there’s an innate denigration of ideas sourced from outside one’s circle. Like a kid who only eats hot dogs, new foods and experience are met with instant mistrust. Place moussaka in front of a kid like this and he or she will instantly turn up his or her nose, push it away, and not even consider trying it. There will likely be an utterance of, “Yuck, that’s gross. Disgusting!”

Politically, that’s how many digest their views. Eating only the same thing, over and over, and distrusting anything new and different. And when new ideas or alternative perspectives are considered we see the same reaction, “Yuck, that’s gross. You don’t understand!”

Look, I am disappointed that council didn’t approve the Fanshawe request for $10 million. I think it’s going to be a good addition to the core. But I also understand that many people are reticent about spending municipal money on a provincial responsibility. It could be the start of a slippery slope, so I’m really not that offended by the split vote.

In my rational mind, I believe that if Fanshawe knows the value this project will bring to its operations and there’s a strong business case behind it, the school will find a way. Government money is the lowest of the hanging fruits; money can and will be found. After all $1 million/year for 10 years is not the end of the world.

But you’d never know that by the reaction on-line. I was legitimately concerned about a mass Twitter Seppuku. As per the usual, when a decision goes against someone’s thinking, there was a chorus of variations of “kick out the bums,” inferring of motivational influences, and the schoolyard favourite — calling people dumb.

(Ironically, this came from many of the same people who just a scant few months ago were parroting the ol’ ‘This council should not be allowed to make ANY decisions or spend ANY money until the next election” line.)

It’s a “sky is falling” mentality that precludes sober second thought and consideration. There are no sure things in life, there are no 100 per cent wins. No, I am not in favour of a performing arts centre; yes, I am in favour of Fanshawe’s expansion – but I also think that giving municipal funds to something that should be provincially funded can be precedent setting. Does it mean I wouldn’t agree to it? No. But to not consider it is just as folly.

But woe to the person – especially the new person/outsider – who stands up and expresses an opinion. Instead of encouraging discourse, discussion, and sharing of ideas, they’re shut down and banished to the kiddie table of perceived lack of understanding or inappropriate levels of engagement.

Yet we expect our elected representatives to behave differently from us? It is not they who should be held to a higher standard; rather they must adhere to the standard that we set ourselves.

Ideally, council is like a discussion at the family dinner table. Yes, you’re going to have the odd uncle at one end of the table, that “a little-too-fond-of-the-wine” aunt across from you, and the teenagers who just graduated to the big table involved. But everyone talks, shares, and argues respectfully.

The teenagers get to share their enthusiasm and ask questions that make us better – and no one judges them for their lack of experience or potentially incomplete knowledge. We respect that they bring new views and ideas that the older crowd may not consider. We value the experience and historical perspectives that the older people can impart; we embrace the thoughts of those out-of-town cousins who have their own set of needs and frames of reference.

And we work together for the betterment of the whole family. Yes, there will be spats; yes, there will be arguments. But in the end, we’re all after the same thing – no one family member matters more or less, and we try to find the best solution for us all.

In many ways, my vision of council respect can be summed up by that aforementioned moussaka. Personally, I don’t care for it, but I was willing to give it a shot because someone I respect recommended it.

That’s what we must impart to our elected representatives – we don’t have to like everything that’s served up, but we have to be willing to respect the person who made it and at least give it a shot.

And sometimes we have to swallow things we don’t like for the sake of the greater peace at the family table.

If we stop turning up our nose at things because of from whence or from whom they come, maybe then our elected representatives will be better equipped to put their noses to the grindstone.

But it’s not council that needs to change. We do. After all, they are our representatives, so can we really find fault in them representing us the way we actually are?

1 thought on “London Council Exists in Our Own Image

  1. John Hassan

    Well said and well written and a fair synopsis of what seems to be going on here most of the time and yes the change needs to come from the bottom up. Status quo is wearing thin on some and as you say the comfort zone of many. I thought the Fanshawe decision was a bad one more because of the level of debate and lack of facts (spin replacing facts) with the frustratingly low level of common sense used in the discourse and the oft used politicking over substance.
    If grass roots is the start of bottom up change then hopefully we can sow the seeds of change (hopefully born more of wanting better than just sheer frustration). It will be an interesting Fall I hope and hopefully Fall is the beginning of this City actually rising and maturing on many fronts.


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