Public Process at Work (Part 2)

Continuing from “Public Process at Work (Part 1)

At the city council meeting, a single-mother resident spoke up against the project, and played the ‘kid card’, by having her son speak. The 9 year old boy took the podium.
“Right now I can go down the street and see if my friends are home to go play with them. If you guys let this happen, I won’t be able to go out because . . ”
And here I thought he was going to say “all the cars will run over me.” But it was better.

“. . . an angry mob will come and kidnap me. And what would you do about that?” At this, the tyke fisted his little hands and tucked them under his chin, looking at the City Council members with what he thought was an engaging demeanor. McCauley Caulkin, top that!
That parent should be ashamed of herself, for feeding or encouraging such fibs to her son. If her son actually believed what he was saying, maybe he’d be better off in someone else’s custody.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say, I never got very involved in the planning and neighborhood discussion process. Even at the City Council meeting, I didn’t get up to speak. If the City Council had rejected the project, I would have felt guilty that I hadn’t done my little bit to provide 2 minutes of blather supporting the project. In fact the main reason why I attended the City Council meeting was for entertainment value; to see the players in the cast each take to their roles. And in having read the entire agenda item packet including all the comment letters, I was curious to see the faces of the names of those who had written and discussed the comments, none of whom I personally know.

I am no exception to what I’ve learnt about public participation and the process. People are more inclined to show up to City Council meetings and get-involved in grass-roots organizations advocating against something, rather than for something.
At the city council meetings I used to attend for work, 97% of the members of the public speaking on any given agenda item were against it. The 3% for it really had to make an effort to be there. The silent majority who are not present would probably be for it, but they don’t care enough or didn’t know about the issue.

I have to give credit to one of my neighbours, someone I’m not personally acquainted with. Her home would actually back up against the new development. She, a mother of three, made the effort to read through the planning and environmental documents, and write a very thoughtful and detailed comment letter. She also took the time get in line and speak at the City Council meeting. A true model of a civic-duty-doer if there ever was one.

Actually, it’s ironic that none of us residents in our development have lived here for more than 7 years. Before that, this land belonged to an industrial/manufacturing complex. On the main arterial road that forms the western border, there are 5 residences that have been here for at least 30 years. I’m sure they were really unhappy that the land behind their homes was going to become higher-density housing, which would increase traffic and noise for them, and impact their privacy. They probably protested just as heartily against the development I currently live in, just like my neighbors are protesting against more of the future ‘us’es moving in.

These issues all seem so petty: a little more traffic and noise; and little less privacy and parking in a neighborhood of ¾ million-dollar homes. Environmental injustice often places in poorer neighborhoods polluting industries or halfway homes for recovering drug addicts by default; they have less resources to organize and resist than those on the other side of the tracks. In my fantasy of an equitable society, all the necessary-but-undesirable land-uses should be distributed throughout all neighbourhoods in a given city. They could negotiate between them the placement of the garbage dump, juvenile hall, a soup kitchen, and the fifteen-storey condo. But each district would have to take at least one.

Look at what people living in Iraq, Afghanistan or other developing countries have to deal with on a daily basis: their homes could be attacked by shells or armed intruders, power outages, erratic water supplies: they might gladly swap places with us. We have it so good. God bless suburban America.

Sitting in the City Council chambers watching the proceedings unfold, it struck me that not only were we fortunate that our woes were merely noise and traffic issues, but more than that, we have a stable and secure system of due process of law. We have the invaluable privileges of being able to voice our opinions (however far-fetched they may be), of being able to protest without fear of retaliation. Our officials are forced to listen to us (no City Council member can cut off a speaking member of the public the two minutes are up.) The officials work to address issues, even when the deliberations drag on deep into the night.

In China, people who protest against polluting factories in their towns are harassed. When they take their case to higher authorities, they are ignored. In Thailand, dams are built over the objections of villagers, and procurement contracts are awarded without transparency.

Many of my neighbors may have gone home angry and disappointed at the City Council’s approval of the project, but none of them would be able to argue that their concerns had been ignored, or that the decision-making process was executed with any flaws.

The due process of the law system doesn’t always work, and nor does it work perfectly, but it works here more often and more consistently than it does in anywhere else. We know that the rules are stated up front, and apply equally to all; and we can be reasonably confident of pursuing our happiness without harassment or encumbrance. We can afford to have faith in the due process of the law today that people in other societies can only dream about. God bless America.

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