City Hall isn’t listening and citizen confidence in local democracy is declining. City Hall has “a communications deficit.” Those are just some of the findings of the Shape Burlington report on civic engagement released yesterday.
Those findings (full report below) are no surprise to followers of A Better Burlington community website, and the Save Our Waterfront initiative. A Better Burlington was launched a year ago to tell residents what City Hall is doing, and to solicit feedback and participation on a range of issues.
One of the biggest has been waterfront development. Residents were not broadly and meaningfully consulted before current city council approved high-rise towers for the Old Lakeshore Road area of our downtown waterfront. Save Our Waterfront was formed as an initiative of A Better Burlington to press for community input before decisions about our waterfront are made. An update on our progress and next steps is below.
But we are not alone in raising concerns about public input. They have been echoed by many other individuals and groups, cutting across a variety of issues. The common refrain: there’s a “need for improvement” in public involvement, to quote Shape Burlington.
Credit for this report belongs to you, the people of Burlington. You raised the alarm about City Hall’s failure to meaningfully involve you in decision-making, which directly led to the creation of Shape Burlington. And you provided feedback that helped shape the final recommendations. Credit also goes to the citizen volunteers of Shape Burlington, who gave more than 2000 hours to give us this report.
Now the real work begins: to implement the recommendations.
Public input needed on the pier
A clear sign that city staff and council take the Shape Burlington recommendations seriously is to be more transparent on the costs and options to finish the pier. The public has been denied answers and shut out of the decision-making process on how to go forward. There are many questions that can be answered that don’t compromise the city’s legal position. For example: Why has the budget risen from $7 million to over $9 million in two years? What has been spent on lawyers? What was the contractor’s offer – and price – to finish the pier? Will “seeking legal action” – the city’s current path – get the pier finished or simply drag this process out even further and cost us more money? How do upper levels of government (federal/provincial/regional) who are all contributing money to this project feel about their dollars being spent on legal action?
And most important: What do the citizens of Burlington want to see happen with the pier?
I’ve been digging for answers (see report), and I plan another report on my findings shortly. In the meantime, you can still add your name to the list of residents seeking transparency on costs and options to finish the pier, by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The pier provides a great opportunity to put into practice the recommendations around greater public input “before decisions are made.”
Highlights of Shape Burlington report
You can read Shape Burlington’s full report below, but here are some of the highlights as they relate to A Better Burlington and Save Our Waterfront. An update on next steps for Save Our Waterfront is also below.
- Develop an Engagement Charter that among other things outlines an “early notification system” so citizens have input “before decisions are made.” Would city council have approved towers on the waterfront if they knew then what they know now – that more than 2000 residents across the city don’t support that?
- Involve citizens in the Strategic Planning process in 2011. That means getting your input on future development and intensification in the downtown and waterfront before the plan is approved.
- Improve the delegation process to city committees and council meetings to increase “respect for citizens.” This is sorely needed. I’ve personally seen the lack of respect shown to both individuals and groups representing a range of issues, who have been dismissed by City Hall as an angry mob of single-issue, fear-mongering NIMBYs, who lack expertise. It’s classic dismissive behaviour that attacks the individual, rather than dealing with the issues and principles. And it doesn’t encourage citizens to give their precious time to provide input.
- Establish an Office of Engagement to implement the recommendations, and support the work of citizen’s advisory committees whose potential “has not yet been fully realized.” One of these committees is the new Burlington Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee. Save Our Waterfront pushed hard for that committee, as one way to increase citizen input on waterfront development. More on that committee below.
Next steps for Save Our Waterfront
In the meantime, Save Our Waterfront’s work to preserve the Old Lakeshore Road area and our heritage assets from highrise development continues. Among the initiatives we are currently working on:
- Candidate Package: We are developing an information package for all candidates in the municipal election, seeking their commitment to the broad goals of Save Our Waterfront.
- Community-based waterfront development: We are researching how other lakefront communities have developed their waterfronts while preserving heritage, access and community character. Burlington’s waterfront can be a jewel that meets the goals of downtown intensification without simply plunking expensive, highrise residences there.
- Property owner research: We know at least one developer is assembling property in the Old Lakeshore Road area. We are continuing to research and monitor property activity, and will let you know what we find out.
- Heritage preservation: City staff were directed months ago to liaise with owners of heritage properties along Old Lakeshore Road, and identify key properties worth preserving. However, their time has been taken finding a home for Freeman Station. We will continue to monitor and report progress around heritage preservation.
- Liaise with the Burlington Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee. Many of you have raised concerns about whether this committee will be effective, given its large mandate (the entire Burlington waterfront), and, more important, whether City Hall will listen to their advice. Time will tell. More than 55 people applied and were interviewed to sit on the committee. Members are currently being finalized and will have to be presented for approval by City Council. That is currently scheduled for May 3. As such, the committee probably won’t be up and running before the summer or fall.
We’ll keep you posted when that committee is finalized and begins to hold meetings, which will be public. Save Our Waterfront is a formal stakeholder to the committee. We will liaise with that group, keep you informed, and let you know how you can provide input.
We still have lawn signs available, and several large banners for those of you who may have fences. And we always have room for more volunteers. Your continued support is welcome.