Picture your future in the city of London
Picture your dreams as you want them to be
Picture the things that you can accomplish
In London, the city of opportunity - Jim Chapman’s Incontinentals
London, Ontario: the ‘City of Opportunity!’ We have our own song to prove it, so it must be true. A city that can boast a 0% tax increase, with zero cuts to services. Our Mayor campaigned on that promise, so it must be true. It is also the city of citizen engagement, where all citizens have an equal voice and are free speak and be heard. Our Mayor set up a Community Engagement Task Force (CETF) to make sure of it, so it must be true!
But it isn’t true. The truth is, London is becoming a city of missed opportunity, depleting services and eroding citizen engagement. Our city is lost and in crisis, and it must be addressed.
On February 3rd, it was reported that the unemployment rate in London had dropped from 9.6% to 9% – still one of the highest rates for a city of it’s size (ranked the 10th largest) in Canada. The drop was somewhat significant, but the relief was short lived with the announcement in the following hours that the Electromotive Diesel Plant (EMD) would be closing it’s doors for good, putting approximately 700 people out of work. A blow to an already hurting city that we didn’t need, and could do nothing about.
Mayor Fontana campaigned on promises of job creation, frozen taxes (without touching services), opportunities for families, and the improvement of cultural and recreational facilities. Since 2010, more “good paying” jobs have been lost than created. While an initial tax freeze promised for 2011 did not affect services, that will not be the case in 2012, as proposed budget cuts for this fiscal year extend to cultural spending and recreational funding.
Included in the proposed cuts to reach a 0% tax increase are the closing of several wading pools in the city, and early closing of select public pools; reduction of cultural funding; a reduction of maintenance and garbage collection in city parks during the fall and winter months; $1 million yearly cut in funding to Affordable Housing; and a $1.3 M dip into the city reserves (against the advice of city staff). All this to save home owners an average of $30 per year with an approximate 1.5% tax increase, or $6.97 with an approximate 0.3% increase.
My home was affordable to buy, and my taxes are – as the city website proclaims above – much below the urban averages of other cities. It’s one of the reasons I bought a home and continue to live in this city. I appreciate the services I receive for the taxes I pay, and I wish to keep them. Not just personal services that benefit me directly like winter maintenance, but those that benefit the greater community, like affordable housing. The people of a city are, after all, it’s greatest asset.
As I stated in my opening, the Mayor created a task force to address the issue of citizen engagement. How could we make it better, and what could be done to get Londoners to get involved in city politics?
I sat on the task force for the first few weeks. I wasn’t sure how effective it would be in the end, but was willing to give it a shot and see what contribution I could make to the discussion. I became disillusioned and disheartened with the entire process one evening while sitting in the gallery at city council. I believe the debate was around backyard chickens that day, and Councillor Joe Swan, in response to a request for citizen input to the matter, said in no uncertain terms, “You have your say on election day. After that, I speak for you.” Very “father knows best” of him. It turned me off completely.
It seems to be a sentiment held by many on city council. The voice of the people who elected them is not being heard, and others are being deliberately tuned out. Citizens are not having their voices treated as equals, if they happen to hold a position of ‘respect’ in the community, whether it be as a priest or an employee of the not-for-profit sector.
After the proposed cuts were announced, Sean Quigley, Executive Director of Emerging Leaders, posted a blog expressing his anger over the cuts, especially to Affordable Housing. It was not inflammatory, but it was passionate. He went on to post Councillor Sandy White’s response to concerns he raised. Somewhere in this time, Councillor White contacted Sean’s former and current employers to determine if he was speaking on behalf of them or himself. Why, we aren’t exactly sure.
The Mayor contends it is normal to do this now and then, and perfectly acceptable. Others see it as a form of intimidation. Emerging Leaders is partially funded by the City, and White has been vocal in the past about not-for-profit leaders speaking out and criticizing.
“I guess one of the things I have a pet peeve about the fact some of the (non-profit) leaders in this city, and certainly we’re entitled to free speech, but the way that they conduct themselves, and we’re handing them money from the city, you know they’re in the paper, they’re on their blog. I mean they’re, you know, after councillors, they’re after you Mr. Mayor. I mean these kind of professional, ah non-professional behaviour needs to be addressed. Because it is the taxpayers’ money we’re giving out, and yet this kind of behaviour is acceptable? I mean these are some of the things in terms of professionalism that we look at and I don’t want to be accused of whining it’s just a fact. If I did that at my job they would say, you know, there’s the door what’s your hurry, here’s your pink slip and don’t look back, we’ll get you a box and see you later. And I think these are some of the issues we need to address in terms of the standards that we set in our non-profit sector in London. Thank you.”
Nathan Smith wrote a blog post in defence of Sandy White yesterday that I don’t disagree with, but don’t entirely agree with either. It’s a tough call to make. Sandy contends it was not done with any ill will, and perhaps we should take her at her word, but her actions speak louder than words as evidenced above in her criticism of non-profit leaders speaking out. In the past she has had no problem with criticism of City Hall with her participation in producing a play called “Sandbox” which is based on White’s own foray into City Hall (or, “Silly Hall”).
The social media exchange in this London Free Press piece is also very important to look at to determine if London is really a city concerned about “engaging” with citizens. Apparently, we must not only refrain from speaking and criticizing council decisions if we are a not-for-profit leader, but if we are a church leader as well (thankfully, I am neither). The exchange between Councillor Orser and private citizen/priest Marty Levesque is even more troubling to me. Despite Mr. Levesque’s profession, he is a citizen first and foremost. To be silenced because he is a priest? It goes without saying, it is completely wrong. Mr. Orser suggesting he should not speak out disturbs me, and it should disturb you too.
Based on the above, can we really fault our leaders and ordinary citizens for being timid to come forward and speak out for what they believe in? Should they be separated from the other common tax payers, simply because of their job and position in the community? The simple answer is, “No”. Every tax payer and resident of this city should have an equal voice. End of story.
Is our city a “City of Opportunity”, or “City of Opportunists”? Frankly, it’s hard to find the opportunities our Mayor and theme song speak of. We can imagine all we like, but the reality is clear. Our city is broken on many levels, and it’s citizens are feeling lost. We must change the direction it has taken of late. We must stop trouncing on those who are hurting, and we must stop silencing those who are trying to speak up for them. If we don’t, our own personal rights are going to slowly erode. I, for one, am not ready to sit back and let that happen. Not now or ever.
Speak up for yourself and those around you. Remember, to others you are the “those” around them. We need to stick up for each other, before it’s too late. Do not silence us, Councillors. Listen to us, and truly engage with us. Please, don’t intimidate our people – leaders or otherwise – into not wanting to use their voices. If this truly is the City of Opportunity, extend those opportunities to all.
I implore our city Councillors to listen, engage and respect it’s citizens. That’s all we are asking of you and once we receive it, you will surely get it back.