Tuesday, September 27, 2005

You can't follow council without a programme

Joe Belanger, reporter of municipal citizen clamp-down record for the London Free Press, points out the obvious when he notes that London city council is divided by predictable voting propensities.

On one side is a group of 10 council members who mostly support issues favoured by developers or business — staff or public opposition be damned. On the other is a group of nine council members who claim to be pro-growth, but not at any cost.
Belanger's persuasions are manifest — I'd be inclined, with no more nor less justification, to label the two sides as less and more interventionist, or laissez-faire and authoritarian, respectively — but the substance of the observation is essentially that Belanger has as equal a chance of seeing his compassionate-fist agenda passed as I have seeing it denied.

I was struck by the team line-up of councillors when the Free Press published a tally of the votes of the councillors for and against a ban of pesticides back in July, which I thought would make a very workable council scorecard. The London Fog editorial team was unfortunately … er… preoccupied at the time of the story, feebly accounting for the dereliction of duty. But it is a temporarily decided issue that is worth examining for Londoners, and not only because it illustrates the dependable inclinations of councillors towards or away from trespass.

According to the Joe Belanger of London Free Press on July 26, London city council rejected, for the time being at least, a bylaw banning the use of pesticides in the city and, substituting for restraint,
passed a bylaw that only encourages people not to use pesticides and promotes so-called integrated pest management.
[emphasis mine and not in the original of Joe Belanger's version of factual reporting]
At a glance, council's economy with policing resources on this issue may seem an instance of doing the right thing for the assorted right or wrong reasons. And I was amused by the bone tossed to the prohibition crowd in the form of public advocacy education, an always popular precursor to more disciplinary measures once the citizenry fails to govern itself in the prescribed fashions as well as a testament to council's inability to do nothing at all, indifferent to its competence. But it takes a bylaw to forbear already permitted usage?

Council's acceptance of their adopted role in the judgment of standardizing behaviour comes as no surprise to anyone who understands covetousness and hoarding of bright shiny things. Nor was the participation of ban proponents surprising, being the ones who stand to gain in simulated moral authority without having to go to the trouble of gaining moral probity by disseminating the merits of their ideas to any but a small parochial star chamber. It was the submission of proposals and conditions for the license to use their own property and engage in their own trade by opponents of the ban that is alarming but, well, maybe not altogether surprising itself in these days of summary deference.
"I think it was a smart move by council," Henry Valkenburg of Great Lakes Lawn Care said. "Council looked at the facts, looked at the evidence and they made the right decision."
This unbecoming praise from those whose practice of their livelihoods hung on the balance of the tempers and caprices of only eighteen councillors thereby concedes that council somehow, somewhere acquired not only the power but also the right to make a decision about everyone else's property and trade, and that a decision on the topic is like some part of a natural composition of order subject to little more than aesthetic criticism rather than an artefact requiring an examination of the premises that allowed it to come to pass in the first place.

Of course, the pesticide and lawn care industries can be forgiven for massaging instead of decrying the authority of their potential malefactors — it's the only game in town and a little flattery and maybe switching of the dice are the only known methods for tilting the odds in your favour, even if you didn't ask to sit at the table in the first place. And who are these city councillors to whose approval people's determinations for their own property must be contingent? Men and women elected in a process few of us have chosen and by a minority of citizens, many of whose criteria for selecting representation appear to rest on a talent for name recognition. Councillors are no more inherently capable than anyone else to make generalized judgments about what is intrinsically good, bad, ugly, moderate, or risky of any relationship between people and their property. In fact, they are capable only of enforcing only subjective political judgments informed, in their case, by their need to be perceived to be governing by consent and certainly not by any standards that are objectively immutable, which makes them fashions and arbitrary.

To those who see no problem with council making a decision, either yea or nay, about pesticide use, the other pillar upon which arbitrary authority rests is the acquiescence of everyone not invited to the table. I have obviously no objection to anyone who declines to use pesticides on their own property — I'm not inclined towards them myself, but if I did I'd kindly remind those squeamish of the supposed risks to stay off my property in the first place. In anticipation of the objections that pesticides constitute an objective harm even to people who observe this once fundamental principle of mutual respect, I can do no better than quote the article to cite the substitution of emotion and hearsay for objective facts:
Coun. David Winninger and others gave impassioned arguments supporting a ban. Winninger said the reason there's no scientific proof pesticides pose a health threat is because they may be tested only on animals.

He argued Dr. Graham Pollett, the city's medical office of health, along with various medical organizations support a ban on pesticides.

"We don't have all the answers, that's quite clear," Winninger said. "But that hasn't stopped other municipalities from passing bold legislation. If we really care about the people of London and our children and grandchildren, then every one of us ought to be voting against this bylaw."
If people really want a community where laws are created based on emotional dramatics where facts are inconveniently absent or unsupportive, I would suggest that they are inviting their own submission to other people's as-yet-unforeseen caprices in the future — a fate those of us who wish to remain masters of our own persons ought to resist. Unfortunately, if we cannot have councillors in London who forbear to make a decision about other people's property in the absence of any objective or non-politically-motivated facts, then I suppose we can at least restrain our strongest censure of those councillors who at least forbear to use their powers to dispose of that property.

So how do the pesticide vote scorecard and Joe Belanger's "staff or public opposition"-friendly professional pronouncement stack up?

The probationary status Belanger assigns to Sandy White is purely theatrical — an attempt to portray the progressive forces of council as underdogs. And Anne Marie DeCicco's position as nominal head of a supposedly fractious council is one she apparently feels obliges her to be only publicly equivocal. But Belanger and I will not come to blows over these minor distinctions — the pesticide scorecard works as well as his paid op-ed piece, even if it was featured in the news pages. And so what? There is really nothing to be gained for Londoners except reprieves when these proposals to control private property are adjudicated by council in the first place. Belanger's side has already won when an article like his can be published.

Belanger's side has the — dubious at least — advantage of a near monopolistic control of local newspaper reporting, where Gloria McGinn-McTeer, past chairman of the Urban League of London and unelected intriguer, resides as regular opinion adjutant at the Free Press to harangue the readership about what the public wants, as seen from the top of Mt. McGinn-McTeer:
McGinn-McTeer points to votes on three major issues she said make it clear council isn't giving taxpayers much more than lip service:
  • A 9-7 approval of a big box commercial development at the corner of Hyde Park and Fanshawe Park roads, despite staff and public concerns.
  • A 10-8 vote to ignore the majority of voters who supported a referendum asking to reduce the size of council.
  • A 10-8 rejection of a pesticide ban in favour of a public education campaign.
"In the case of pesticides and election referendum, the people clearly indicated a preference and, at the end of the day, a majority on council was still not moved," McGinn-McTeer said.
By the peopleMcGinn-McTeer means those few hundreds of Londoners — out of 340,000 — who respond to her clarion calls for McGinn-McTeer activism. All other Londoners, it would seem, are coopted into the people by default in virtue of the fact that there are no petitions circulating to leave things and people alone as they are, or to shut her up for that matter. This cozy patrician-club definition of the people reminds of the the opening of the new East London Library branch this past Saturday — local community and business leaders were invited to the ceremonies but, oddly enough, no members of the strip club next door were in attendance.

On the subject of emotion prevailing over reason in the debate about pesticides, Wolfvillewatch reports on a public meeting in Wolfville, NS, that could as eaily have happened in London, except with entertainment provided:
After a welcome the mayor invited in The Raging Grannies to warm up the crowd, so cute in their hats, so lighthearted as they decried the evils of pesticides in song. Then we sat through a "brainstorming session" to develop group norms so that we adults knew how to behave in class the meeting. Why did this feel like grade school?

This was followed by presentations to educate us on the horrors of pesticide use. We were relieved there were no slides of deformed children. Oh, yes, but they did have Gregor telling us about how they manage without pesticides in HRM and Russell, a chap from the landscapers association, for balance. He actually was quite balanced, not weighty enough to tip the scales.

By this time we were ready to choke if we heard the phrase sustainable community one more time. It is obviously flavour of the year… well, there's money in it.

After a lemonade break […] the public input session finally came. The camera didn't stay for this as we had feared but you still had to line up at the podium behind the 4 or 5 people who had been primed to speak on behalf of a by-law to ban pesticides. If you had a different view you knew you were outnumbered right off the bat. Talk about peer pressure. And one of the speakers actually said Council's decision should be made on the basis of emotion not fact so, well, how can you respond to that?

Then there was a question period where the public could ask the panelists questions from the floor. That's when we finally heard some spontaneous input from business people and residents about real concerns — both for and against a pesticide ban.

That's when questions about the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of alternatives came up, and questions about how a bylaw would be enforced, and reference to contradictory research on risk, and how some residents just felt they, oh, had wanted this for so very, very long and why has it taken so long and how they feared council wouldn't go far enough, and would stop short of a by-law, and who cared about failing landscapes when we had failing babies. And we heard the suggestion that the panel seemed one sided. One councillor who was not on the Task Force asked what views were not being heard. That's when we were told that the PMRA (Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency — characterised by one of the task force members as merely a mouthpiece for pesticide manufacturers) had been invited to be represented but declined.

So this was going really well, people were really talking things out, this was a real meeting at last, a real exchange of views but you could see the organisers getting nervous, fearing things would get out of their control and then, oops 10 o'clock and we all had to go home like good children. Bedtime.


Anonymous said...

Don't call them "anti-pesticide" ... that sounds so negative. Call them "pro-asthma".

Little Tobacco said...

Correct me id I am wrong, but hasn't Health Canada recently studied common cosmetic pesticides and found no harmful effects on people or pets?

MapMaster said...

According to London city council's rules of orders, such disinterested observations are impermissible in chambers as they would impinge upon the desired effects of fantasy and subjectivity. Besides, when convenient, government agencies can be dismissed as tools of corporations.

I have been unable to find any reference to specific studies Health Canada has undertaken, but given that all cosmetic pesticides in Canada must be registered with Health Canada, I presume that some objective oversight has been conducted. They are certainly considered permissible by this agency.

Anonymous said...

Up in Ottawa, Lowell Green on CFRA radio had for a long time a challenge, for lefties to produce a legitimate, refereed scientific study which proved that household pesticides cause cancer or any other long term health effects. No one could ever give him one, though he must have got hundreds of phone calls and emails from people claiming, "If you would please just visit [some loonie web site] everything you need to know is there".

Meanwhile, ragweed plantations are springing up along the city streets, pathways, and on the many tracts of government-owned wasteland being saved from development with your tax dollars ... and throngs of asthma sufferers clog the hospital emergency departments.

Anonymous said...

The London Piss Press has an agenda,

There WILL be a banning of pesticides.

The Piss press has decided!

and so it shall be.

So shut up.