Thursday, July 23, 2009

In praise of the gadfly

In praise of the gadfly

by: Chris Bilton

July 22, 2009 2:00 PM

When Don Barber shows up to council meetings, politicians are, like, shoo!
Mississauga swats away an annoying activist, but he’s a symbol of local democracy in action

If you’ve never been to a public consultation or a City Hall committee meeting, or even to a town hall–style debate, you might never have had the experience of witnessing a gadfly in action. At these kinds of public forums, there will invariably be one, if not a handful of folks, intent on discussing in intricate detail an issue that they’ve determined to be super-important no matter how little it has to do with the meeting at hand, or how much of everyone’s time they’re about to waste, or even how far from making a useful point they may stray. For an audience member, this kind of disruption is interminably frustrating. And for an elected official trying to save face, it must be sheer torture.

But there is no special constitutional clause ensuring the right to have public meetings run smoothly. And there is no asterisk beside the phrase “public consultation” that indicates that the “public” must be articulate and savvy — or even 100 per cent lucid. Sometimes it’s the gadflies, the obsessives and the borderline nutty who are able to shed light on important yet overlooked issues.

Which is why the news out of Mississauga City Hall that they are ending their tradition of public-question period, largely because of the persistence of one individual, is so troubling. It seems a petty action for any municipal government to undertake. The mayor’s office assures me that they’ve simply diverted public comment to the committee level, where discussion is limited to what’s on the agenda. But Hazel McCallion’s remarks to environmental activist and four-time mayoral candidate Don Barber that he is “ruining the opportunity for people to come before council because you misuse the freedom” tells a far more personal story.

Sure, a scheduled 10-minute opportunity for anyone to come before council and ask a question about anything is something of a rarity — in Toronto, people can do so only during committee meetings. Barber even admits that, in his experience, only a few people used the forum on a regular basis. But as a long-standing tradition of our neighbour to the west, it is — or was — a fine example of the inclusiveness of city politics.

According to Barber, he began to use question period as a forum when all other avenues were closed. Since his efforts in the mid-1990s to save the Cawthra Bush, he says his attempts to deal directly with staff and councillors have been to no avail. “If it wasn’t for that, we would never have been motivated to ask these things in public,” he says.

Asking things in public, however, has proven a troublesome endeavour for Barber. He’s been regularly denounced by the mayor and councillors, and even arrested in council chambers — though he still managed the best-ever showing against McCallion when he ran against her in 2006 with charges still pending. (They were eventually dropped.)

Nobody ever said that criticizing government from the outside is easy, mind you. In New York City, independent newspaper gadfly Rafael Martinez Alequin was stripped of his press credentials in 2007 for belligerent questions concerning race and class, and last year the mayor of Clarington filed a gag order against activist Jim Richards. Earlier this year the Montreal suburb of Pointe Claire tried, but eventually decided against, issuing fines for people who broke the rules during that city’s question period.

But censoring even the most obnoxious commentators — either through subtle procedural changes or overt gag orders — looks worse on a city council than it does on the people they’re trying to ignore. When only 32 per cent of people in the GTA even bother to vote during municipal elections, is it really wise to alienate the few who are interested?

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