(I wrote the following opinion piece in response to several editorials in the Waterloo Region Record. It was published Weds March 12 in the newspaper’s Insight section):
Too bad editorial writers at our community newspaper of record didn’t take time to thoroughly review two excellent reports recently prepared for Kitchener council.
One that went unreported outlined the need for open and transparent local government while the other, given scant attention, noted the fact Kitchener has one of the most depressing (28.5 per cent) voter turnouts in Ontario.
Sections of both reports are worth considering by those following council’s handling of a sincere $2-million offer by Jim Rodger and Dave Caputo to erect 22 bronze statues of former Canadian Prime Ministers around the Common area in Kitchener’s Victoria Park. Cluttering up the beautiful park, statues would mark Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.
An on-line survey on the issue resulted in an overwhelming 1,920 of 2,441 taxpayers saying no to the statues. Rejecting the proposal for numerous reasons, 1,786 said they did not want $300,000 of their tax dollars spent on building bases for statues and still more money being budgeted to clean up predictable vandalism. A majority of respondents said they did not want the statues built anywhere in Kitchener.
Hundreds of passionate, negative responses were listed on more than 65 pages of a survey that had one of the highest response rates in council history including the one asking people if they wanted a casino in our city.
Despite the editorial writer’s dubious suggestion that Rodger and Caputo were denied due process, and no chance to explain their proposal, both appeared before council as well as at our heritage and arts advisory committees and the Victoria Park Working Group. In addition, those I consider artistic experts in our artistic community dismissed suggestions statues were public art.
Back to those two council reports.
The one dealing with open government — usually a favorite subject for editorial writers — asked respondents how they would like councils to better communicate with the public in order to encourage residents to participate in municipal issues.
The loud, clear answer was that taxpayers prefer on-line surveys like the one council used so effectively on the statue issue. Needless to say, survey respondents want their opinions considered in council decisions.
The thought-provoking report on possible ways to improve voter turnout — researched and written by volunteers at Compass Kitchener, a citizen advisory group — said that voter cynicism and a resulting “democratic deficit” is linked to increasing cynicism about elected representatives who ignore the public on subjects they care about. Even worse for the increasing growth of public apathy is any situation where politicians request public input and then seek ways to manipulate, ignore or silence public opinion.
“In order to overcome a common perception among citizens of a democratic deficit, local government must demonstrate (it is) open to citizen input and responsive to their concerns,” the report said. “Citizen engagement values the right of citizens to have an informed say in decisions that affect their lives.”
I would suggest that the “we-know-better-than-the-great-unwashed” and the un-Canadian patriotism expressed by your editorial writer is precisely the type of elitist claptrap that discourages citizen engagement.
After councillors voted 8-1 vote in favour of my resolution to not allow statues on any city-owned land and spend no more taxpayer dollars, outgoing Mayor Carl Zehr — the only person to vote against the motion— complained the survey and its results had “hijacked” the process.
“Shame on us,” Zehr twice scolded councillors.
“Shame on you,” protested The Record’s editorial writer two days later.
Digging out from under such a spluttering spray of outraged disgust, I would reply “shame on” any politician or editorial writer willing to turn their backs on the public they are supposed to represent when they argue in favour of dismissing the wishes of 1,920 survey respondents.