Saturday, December 10, 2005

Imagineering London

Little space is given in the London Fog to expressions of commendation for London's city council, but council made the correct decision Monday to challenge the recent ruling of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) ordering the city to redraw and replace its electoral ward system.

In a 12 to seven vote, council attacked the ruling on several fronts, asking for a review and a re-hearing by the board and seeking permission to appeal to divisional court. (London Free Press)
Council's resolve means that no change in the ward system will likely be implemented before next year's election.

On November 23, the OMB ordered the city of London to replace its seven two-councillor wards with fourteen smaller single-councillor wards. Douglas Gates, an Oakville lawyer representing the Board, made the decision upon review of an application to the OMB* by Imagine London, a group of activists formed to challenge London's ward system and backed by the Urban League of London. Imagine London, led by experienced activist Sam Trosow, argued that effective democratic representation requires that council wards correspond to "communities of interest" — for example, farmers, students, the poor, suburbanites — as though "communities of interest" determined voters' interests instead of the other way around. The group proposed a redistricting of wards according to this vague collective notion of "community interests" using socio-economic indicators and neighbourhood affiliations. In effect, Imagine London proposed that aggregates of common interest can be defined socio-economically and geographically — in other words, that ghettoes are and should be circumscribed and maintained by the inertia of competitive representation. Pie-shaped wards may seem arbitrary, but in fact they are much less arbitrary than a social-scientist characterization of "community interests," nor are common interests supposed by socio-economic status any more real or relevant for governance purposes than geographic proximity. However, condoning the use of qualitative and immeasurable descriptions as a basis for political boundary-making is an invitation for people with political agendas to define the descriptions and, hence, the boundaries — a process known as gerrymandering. There is no objective or contestable difference between qualitative and political considerations.

The real imagination of Imagine London is their conceit that appealing to an unelected board whose purpose is to resolve land disputes under contradictory legislations open to a variety of interpretations is an appropriate method for promoting democracy and council accountability. It is, in fact, an entirely undemocratic method for obtaining specific political objectives. And the OMB ruling — adjudicated and ordered by one unelected officer who does not even live in London — is nothing more than a political decision, one that it should have had no business making in the first place. It could not be anything other than a political decision, and for Imagine London or anyone else to pretend that insitutionalizing a political decision promotes democracy does more disservice to local democracy than any amount of tinkering with maps. No more evidence of the arbitrary and political nature of the ruling is required than in the text of the decision itself. The substance of Gates' rationalization is that "[i]t appears … that Council is not well connected to its constituents at the neighbourhood level."
Board finds there is a pressing need for change… The Board is convinced that the existing Ward system has undermined City Council's ability to connect with its citizens [17]. …The Board is satisfied that there is a widespread support for this change [18].
Gates' reasoning is an assortment of personal judgments about council's "connection" with Londoners, an entirely subjective criterion upon which to base a legal order to circumvent elected politicians. Rather than attribute explanatory powers to an abstract descriptive concept, Gates should have been reminded that it is individual voters and not "communities" that elect councillors, and that any deficiency in the description of "connection" is simply explained by the fact that Londoners have voted for poor representatives. There may be "a pressing need for change," but the change is already within the power of voters to make and is not for one for an unelected outsider to impose.

Even if it were assumed that a "disconnection" between council and citizens could be ascertained and substituted for representational democracy as the basis for changing the structure of municipal governance, Gates' contention is that the existing ward system, rather than voters, is responsible for the "disconnection." There are no grounds to support this particular contention, except that Gates adopts the petitioners' platform as the default explanation where he finds the city's witnesses' arguments for the status quo lacking. The "pressing need for change" is assumed to be only that change that Imagine London proposes.

Gates' contentions further support the political objectives of Imagine London's examples of "disconnection" — that "a failure of governance" is manifested by and only by the failure to adopt particular ideologically-motivated interventions, and that a vocal but extremely small minority agitated by their own view of "a failure of governance" constitutes a public demand. Gates determined that the burden of establishing a "pressing need for change" had been met with the following evidence:
  • In 2003, two questions appeared on the ballot during the municipal election:
    • Are you in favour of reducing the present 19-member size of the municipal Council of the City of London?
    • Are you in favour of abolishing a Board of Control as part of the municipal Council of the City of London?
    The city did not respond to the results of the ballot, 76 and 55% respectively, because the 32% of eligible voters who voted on the questions did not meet the binding 50% threshold. "The City was criticized … by at least one member of the public for not taking any action on governance whatsoever to respect the voters who voted yes on either of the questions. The Board finds his criticism to be fair particularly when the City knew it was most unlikely that 50% of the eligible voters would vote" [4].
Neither question was relevant to the ruling — although Imagine London did petition the OMB to abolish Board of Control, the Board granted deference to the city on that item. Although the threshold may have been improbable, the roughly 24 and 18% of eligible voters who voted "yes" to the respective questions does not demonstrate a "widespread" support for change, although Gates is apparently willing to allow that "one member of the public" is representative. Even if failure to provide action on the referendum results were to be taken as evidence of "disconnection" or poor governance, a contestable and arbitrary finding, there is nothing to suggest that the existing ward system is accountable.
  • "One common theme … was that the downtown still needed attention…" Two city witnesses "relied on the progress made downtown as evidence the system was working. …The Board finds that these examples also demonstrate years of inaction prior to Council dealing with these problems" [15-16].
This finding supposes that redistribution is demonstration of "proper" governance — to prop up some parts of town at the expense of others or to command the economy in such a way as to divert market forces. This is an entirely political objective.
  • "The common theme that the Board heard over and over again was that the common everyday person found that the current system to be too complex, too cumbersome and too difficult to understand" [14].
Gates submits that the "common everyday person" in London is an idiot. Neither participation in the current ward system nor in the proposed new system is "complex," "cumbersome" or "difficult to understand," although these descriptions may be applied to the methodology of defining "communities of interest" as ward boundaries.
  • "The board heard no support for the City's existing Ward system at even at the evening set aside for hearing from the public" [16-17].
The first rule of meetings, hearings, debates and, yes, elections themselves is that the people who participate are usually those who feel they have something to gain from the proceedings. Demonstrations of support for the status quo are a rare occurrence. "The Board heard from over 15 witnesses that evening." Even 15 Londoners chosen at random would not constitute an adequate sample size to represent the public — the 15 Londoners who attended represented only those Londoners who have an activist concern in the outcome, themselves. That 15 people expressed no support for the existing ward system does not demonstrate a "widespread support for change."
  • "There were a number of witnesses who spoke about the difficulty of running for election in London Wards because of their sheer size and the cost" [13].
Witnesses were confusing "running for election" with "winning an election." This is a political attempt to lower barriers for agendas that would not otherwise generate competitive financial or voluntary contributions, a self-defeating proposition. Neither "communities of interest" nor financial and voluntary contributions vote in municipal elections.
  • "…while Councillors represented all of the citizens within their Ward … the suburban areas got the most attention both during and after the campaign. …A possible result could be that suburban 'communities of interest' are overprotected by City Council to the detriment of other 'communities of interest.' …It seems obvious … that a pie-shaped Ward system could be inequitable based on 'communities of interest'" [13-14].
There are no grounds to support this assertion except for hearsay. Even if it were true, suburban votes do not count any more than those of other areas. If suburban voters are more likely to vote it is because they are much more likely to be property owners who see first-hand the taxes they pay the city and take a more active interest in its disbursement. If voters in other areas fail to recognize the taxes they pay indirectly through their rent, they are the ones responsible for any lack of attention.
  • "A number of witnesses spoke of the plight of the disadvantaged and poor who were so discouraged and cynical of existing systems that they no longer voted. …the evidence given by the public at this hearing was of despair and cynicism" [14].
"It's our turn now!" Affirmative action representation.
  • "Councillors appeared overworked and underresourced. …Sometimes one Councillor in a Ward would support a community initiative while the other … would not, creating a 'democratic deadlock'" [14].
The problem of the "appearance" or fact of overworked and underresourced councillors — whichever it may be — is not addressed by the order to replace the ward system. Further, democracy often yields "deadlocks" because there is no clear consensus on either side of an issue — far from evidence of a failure of governance, this is if anything evidence of democracy working properly, the purported aim of the proceedings.

But why should it be supposed that the purpose was to promote democracy, except for Imagine London's say-so? Democracy is no more than a loose term to describe a method of governance that is, like all forms of governance, contrived to advance political objectives. When the complaint is heard that democracy is not working, it can generally be taken to mean that the complainant's political objectives are not being advanced. Imagine London is one such group with political objectives that imagines that a failure to obtain their ideological agenda under the current council is a failure of governance. Imagine London is nothing other than one front of the Urban League of London, a tiny clique of disaffected local bourgeoisie that promotes environmentalism, heritage restrictions and pesticide bylaws and opposes development, and finds common cause with the socialist groups it backs — the websites of Imagine London, the London Coalition Against Pesticides headed by local activist Sean Hurley and of which Trosow is also a member, and AltLondon, a discussion forum for local socialists and progressives managed by Hurley, are all hosted on the same server. This post on AltLondon in response to the city's decision to appeal the OMB ruling demonstrates the political criteria by which Trosow & Co. judge the effectiveness of democratic representation:
And who are they protecting? …They are protecting the old boys network that will ensure London continues to lose its tree canopy, continues to sprawl unimpeded across farmers' fields, and that cheap glass and steel continues to replace history and heritage.
What do tree canopies, urban sprawl and heritage have to do with the decision, one might ask? Imagine London's proposal was an implicit attempt to rig the ward system in the hope of yielding councillors more amenable to its ideological agenda because they have been unable to achieve these ends democratically. Whether or not council appealed the ruling for their own ends, the city now has the opportunity to defend principles — one hopes that its legal counsel understands that this time.
*It's hard to imagine that the OMB would be interested in the boundaries and electoral idiosyncrasies of London's two councillor per ward system. It is indefensible that the OMB would have jurisdiction over those questions, and yet they do under the Ontario Municipal Act. 997 people who signed a petition to abolish board of control and redivide London's seven wards into fourteen "neighbourhood-based" wards — were able to have the Board review its application under Section 223 of the Ontario Municipal Act, an obviously a flawed piece of legislation — see subsection (4).

Petition re: wards: 223. (1) Electors in a municipality may present a petition to the council asking the council to pass a by-law dividing or redividing the municipality into wards or dissolving the existing wards. 2001, c. 25, s. 223 (1).
Number of electors required: (2) The petition requires the signatures of 1 per cent of the electors in the municipality or 500 of the electors in the municipality, whichever is less, but, in any event, a minimum of 50 signatures of the electors in the municipality is required. 2001, c. 25, s. 223 (2).
Definition: (3) In this section, “elector” means a person whose name appears on the voters’ list, as amended up until the close of voting on voting day, for the last regular election preceding a petition being presented to council under subsection (1). 2001, c. 25, s. 223 (3).
Failure to act: (4) If the council does not pass a by-law in accordance with the petition within 30 days after receiving the petition, any of the electors who signed the petition may apply to the Ontario Municipal Board to have the municipality divided or redivided into wards or to have the existing wards dissolved. 2001, c. 25, s. 223 (4).
[Emphasis mine.]
Order: (5) The Board shall hear the application and may, despite any Act, make an order dividing or redividing the municipality into wards or dissolving the existing wards and subsection 222 (6) applies with necessary modifications in respect to the hearing. 2001, c. 25, s. 223 (5).


jd sweeney said...

Sweeney says:
Mini-wards will tend to consolidate statist vision proportinate to confines ...and at the expense of urban renewal and healthy job growth.

Anonymous said...

Sweeney's always about seven degrees off the target and the writer above doesn't appear to know shit from shineola about the Supreme Court of Canada's 1991 decision regarding "communities of interest" and "effective representation."

MapMaster said...

[1991] 2 S.C.R. Reference re Prov. Electoral Boundaries (Sask.)

"Relative parity of voting power is a prime condition of effective representation. Deviations from absolute voter parity, however, may be justified on the grounds of practical impossibility or the provision of more effective representation. Factors like geography, community history, community interests and minority representation may need to be taken into account to ensure that our legislative assemblies effectively represent the diversity of our social mosaic."
[Emphasis added.]

…which demonstrates only that Imagine London's proposal does not contravene Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That's fine and dandy. The decision does not demonstrate that London's current electoral boundaries are contraventions either, however.