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Editorial:

The Stittsville News

April 6, 2004


A feeling of ownership

  Let’s flash back to the last century, or more specifically, the 1900s, when municipal affairs were handled in the Ottawa-Carleton area by 12 governments, namely 11 local municipalities and one regional government.
   While the regional government tended to be somewhat removed from the people, with input coming mainly from the councils of the 11 municipalities, such was not the case with the 11 municipalities.
   These 11 municipalities were very much forums for local input and discussions of issues of local concern.
   Here in Goulbourn, there was a local council meeting virtually every week at which matters of local concern, be they planning, roads, severances, speeding, animal control, wetlands – whatever – were discussed and debated, with decisions ensuing, decisions which reflected the local input. Here in Goulbourn, there was staff working in all areas of municipal concern, all just a phone call away. The municipal phone line was answered by a receptionist, a real person, not a voice mail or recording saying punch in the five digit extension of the staff person being sought.
   It is interesting to note that before January 2001, there were 11 local municipal councils which met all of the time to discuss and decide on matters of local interest. There was continual public input and involvement in these discussions and decisions.
   People, generally, knew where to turn if there was a barking dog next door or a speeding problem on the street, or a planning proposal that upset them, or a pothole on the street or a need for a sidewalk in the area. They knew that if they and their neighbours had an issue, they would give them a hearing and certainly listen attentively. They also knew that the staff would be advising council on the matter understood local concerns and priorities and was receptive to local input.
   You had this going on in the municipal communities throughout Ottawa-Carleton at the local government level. And, with the numerous local governments, each area of the region was able to develop somewhat differently, somewhat uniquely, in response to local needs and priorities. Regional government brought more harmonized, region-wide approach to the matters of municipal interest under its jurisdiction, but the more local, more quality of life matters tended to fall under the mantle of the local governments, and as a result, each municipal area of Ottawa-Carleton was governed municipally in a unique way.
   Alternatively, citizens of each of the former municipal areas felt a real connection with their local government. While government at the federal and provincial levels, in particular, were becoming more aloof and removed from citizens in the years leading to the 21st century, with people becoming cynical about politicians and higher level politicians, by and large this cynicism did not extend to the local level of municipal government. It remained a government close to the people, a government that people continued to feel they could influence, and a government that the people believed was working in their best interests and the best interests of their local community. People developed a real ownership in the local level of government.
   But now, what do we have? Whereas lower taxes, increased efficiencies and less government were promised by the amalgamation proponents, we now have a situation where taxes not lower and where there is a general belief that the ONE municipal government serving what was all of Ottawa-Carleton is a bloated, inefficient, top heavy bureaucracy. It is this one word alone that tells much about the current situation. City hall is now considered a bureaucracy; before, local municipal staff was considered as simply that, staff, working for the taxpayers. It was not a bureaucracy; local government was more like a friendly corner store where the local customer found respect, knowledge and consideration. Whereas the former municipal governments escaped the growing general sense of cynicism that prevailed for federal and provincial politicians and their bureaucracies, now with the big new city of Ottawa, this cynicism prevails. No longer is the municipal government viewed as the local organization that helps the little guy, helps the taxpayer, listens to the taxpayer and responds to the taxpayer. All of this has been lost as the big new city is breeding a municipal government milieu that is leading to less community involvement, less

 

 volunteerism, less of almost everything – in other words, we have lost the feeling of ownership that formerly prevailed at the municipal government level with the local governments.
  Municipal government has become removed from the residents. Everything is becoming harmonized, the “one size fits all” approach. An in arriving at this state, we all in Ottawa-Carleton have lost something. We have lost the former ability to be part of the whole and yet be distinct and unique. We have gone from a collection of 11 areas where local concerns and priorities were reflected in municipal government decisions to one huge big area where everything has to be the same.
   Where has the concept of “village of villages”, which was touted as the vision for the new city at the time of amalgamation, gone? How can we have had 11 local municipal council meetings grappling almost weekly in the past, dealing with local matters and issues and receiving local input, now be replaced with two giant council meetings a month at which no public input is received, and the city council standing committee meetings at which people are limited to five minutes of input. There are no more town hall-type council meetings at which council and its citizenry hash out the pros and cons of an issue. Rather, there is a procedure for people to fill out a form and sign up for five minutes of input to the council committee. Citizens now cannot even address their full council. How can you expect residents, anywhere in the city, to feel any kind of ownership toward such a setup?
   This is the failure of the amalgamated municipal government in this area so far. It has failed to retain the feeling among the people that prevailed previously, that local municipal government was the people’s government; that it is there to deal with people’s problems and issues, and that it is there to make local communities reflect the wishes and priorities of local residents. Rather, municipal government has become like any other form of government, big and removed from the people, and as a result, the cynicism that prevails for other forms of government these days now has hold on our local government.
   We had it great before in the sense that local government meant something to people; that it provided a forum where an individual citizen could make a difference; and where an individual citizen would get involved, as a library volunteer, as a volunteer firefighter, as an advisory committee member, as an interested ratepayer, because it was theirs, it listened to them, it reflected their views. We have lost virtually all of this with our big city municipal government.
   The challenge now is how to get this feeling back. De-amalgamation is, in our view, not the answer, at least not yet. Rather, what is required is what in world terms would be called statesmanship. We require our local politicians to show some leadership and work to implement a model of local governance that makes our big new city a “village of villages”, a “community of communities”.
   We do not claim to know what this model should be specifically, but we do know that it has to include a meaningful way to involve residents in decision-making; it has to include methods to allow local communities or areas to be different, to have their unique local concerns and priorities reflected in local government decisions and operations; it has to be receptive to local input; and it has to restore to people that feeling of ownership of their local municipal government that they once had but have now lost. If this cannot be done, if things continue the way that they have been going, then our city government will end up only going through the motions of municipal governance, as the people will have tuned it out and we will all have lost that sympathetic ear, that helping hand, that willing partner, that we all had with our previous local municipal governments.
   We had something special in our previous lives under our 11 local municipal governments. We have to get that feeling back and we have to get back the aura of ownership by the people that we had prior to amalgamation in 2001. This, in our view, has to be accomplished to make municipal government work in this new city of ours.


The Stittsville News


 

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