Democracy’s price

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Westmount Municipal Association was to have provided inspiration at the founding meeting of a Hudson citizens’ advocacy group. 
Although invitations were emailed to some 100 residents and members of council, less than two dozen people showed up for what was to have been the founding meeting of a Hudson resident’s association at St Mary’s Hall last evening. When the gathering broke up some two hours later, there was no agreement on the role of such an organization or whether another meeting would move the project forward.

Inspiration for the formation of a Hudson citizens’ group was to have come from the presence of Paul Marriott, president of the Westmount Municipal Association. Founded in 1908 to promote sound civic administration, the WMA is a volunteer organization which operates as a non-partisan community link between citizens and City Hall in dealing with traffic, parking and zoning problems. Membership, currently around 200, has risen as high as 3,000 in a city with a population of roughly 20,000.

Membership increases as a function of what’s happening in Westmount, Marriott explained. “People tend to focus on single-issue projects.” Fifteen years ago, the unifying issue was forced mergers and demerger referendums. Today, the WMA is seeking a voice in the impact of the MUHC superhospital on the city.

Marriott is a council regular, asking questions on behalf of WMA members, demanding answers and the supporting documentation. Notwithstanding the WMA’s long history with the city, cooperation isn’t automatic. Who decides what issues the WMA tackles? Members meet monthly and try to work a month ahead, not just for the next council meeting. The association posts everything, including town documentation.

Once the Q&A with Marriott had run its course, moderator Chloe Hutchison moved the meeting to a group membership discussion. In her invitation, she had emphasized the movement’s non-partisan role “in bringing focus to the community’s day-to-day needs and interests, to serve as a springboard where political platforms are discussed and shaped with respect to public long-term values.”

Hutchison wondered what it would take to grow local participation in municipal affairs where citizens who ask hard questions at council meetings are seen as troublemakers.
Could a citizen’s group stimulate meaningful communication with council members? Was there any possibility of citizen input in integrating sustainable measures in Town Planning regulations? Is it reasonable to ask for monthly updates on the Town’s actions relating to finance, infrastructure and planning?

She noted that public participation tools exist, such as citizen advisory committees mandated annually by the municipal councils. “These committees are important players in keeping the balance between personal interest, impact and benefits of development opportunities and the long-term public value.”

The ensuing discussion failed to produce the consensus needed to create a citizen’s advocacy movement. Instead, it showed that any grouping would have to be a coalition of single-issue advocates, most of them opposed to something – greenspace protection, anti-densification, anti-development. Some saw no way past the current level of confrontation. Others preferred the image of a glorified chat group centred on non-confrontational negotiating practices.

Faced with a scenario of squabbling factions and no persuasive unifying vision, people left.

“I guess I’m just at the point of giving up,” said one Hudson greenspace activist. “It’s like my neighbour […] said last night, “where are the 5,150 other people in Hudson?”  Am I just a shit disturber? Should I just stay home, drink wine and watch the sunset?”

Not everyone thought it was a wasted evening.

“It shows every volunteer organization needs a spark plug,” said one participant. “You don’t fire people up with calls for balance and non-partisanship when this administration is practising exactly the opposite.”

Others were surprised to learn that even the WMA has to fight to be heard and informed. “There may not be any political value in having an association, but there’s definitely a moral value,” said one young attendee. “The most surprising? For me, it was hearing that it’s not just here in Hudson.”

• • •

Does Hudson need a citizen’s advocacy group? Yes, say those who don’t feel comfortable with how the current administration makes decisions that will affect residents without their knowledge or consent. Take the Villa Wyman project that will house two dozen seniors who need assisted care. It’s a crucial project in the wrong location, being engineered to solve Wyman’s financial problems. Those who have seen family and friends forced to leave their homes for a facility on the West Island know the injustice of this, but one injustice doesn’t justify another. A competent urban planner knows there won’t be enough parking on the current site for churchgoers, employees and visitors. Why is it wrong to ask hard questions, especially in light of Hudson’s sorry track record in dealing with previous development projects?

The argument against the creation of an independent non-partisan citizens’ movement? I’ll leave that to those who place their faith in Hudson’s voting public and bureaucratic infallibility.

Is it the end of the road for a Hudson citizens’ advocacy group? At the risk of disappointing the gloaters, I don’t think so. Several promising initiatives emerged from last night’s exercise. If they take off, they will transform the Nov. 5 municipal elections.

The truth is that most people don’t like questioning authority, especially in a small town where nobody wants to be the target of ridicule. We pay a social price for our fear of being seen on the wrong side of whatever it is. So, to cover up our shame and complicity, we go to ridiculous lengths to rationalize our disengagement and cheerlead the poor leadership choices we make.

The price of democracy is eternal vigilance. If eternal vigilance includes filing access to information requests and asking questions of our elected and appointed officials, so be it. I’m suspicious of anyone who has a problem with it.

 

 

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