Public officials need to be held to account if democracy is the goal

Last updated on May 04, 23

Posted on May 04, 23

4 min read

Meetings held last week by both Wellesley and Woolwich councils are indicative of much of what’s wrong with our system of governance.

In Wellesley, council held a town hall meeting in response to serious concerns raised by citizens. The public outrage was sparked by a 14 per cent tax hike approved for 2023. The response was understandable. Less so the fact council approved the huge increase.

In the lead-up to approving this year’s budget, the township provided no real warnings of its intent. Likewise, Wellesley provided little direct indication of the financial impact of its new recreation facility, which accounted for more than half of the tax increase this year ... for starters.

In Woolwich, councillors discussed yet another strategic planning exercise. Leaving aside the fact the strategic planning process has largely been debunked over the years, the township’s exercise will be undemocratic.

As in the past, the goal is to “consult” with the public, asking people what they’d like the township to look like in 10 years’ time. And as with past experience, the process will draw input from an inconsequential number of people, most of them people with vested interests, from speculators to social services groups.

The public consultation process is only credible if a large percentage of the population provides input – at least 50 per cent to be democratic, but certainly a number much higher than the few dozen.

History will show that the municipality will attempt to use such limited input to justify actions that provide little benefit, though serve government interests in many cases.

In that, the strategic planning process is akin to the rationale Wellesley administrators offered up to residents at last week’s town hall: we held a public meeting and nobody came to complain. Later, councillors voted on the budget in a public forum, and again there were no big protests, unlike what followed.

Bureaucrats almost always equate apathy with consent, always feigning surprise after the public reacts negatively when the impacts are clearly spelled out to people.

We’ve seen countless examples of municipal governments using bogus consultations and poor reasoning to waste millions – and billions, in the region’s case – on pet projects that provide little or no benefit to the vast majority of people nonetheless stuck with the bill, and often a reduced quality of life.

Simply put, municipalities have to both cut back on what they’re doing and get real consent from the public before doing anything else. Transparency and communication are also areas in need of vast improvement. As it stands, politicians and bureaucrats prefer to keep people in the dark.

Added together, the practices of local government cast serious doubt on their credibility. The situation grows worse by the day.

At all levels of government, we’ve had instances of corruption and boondoggles in abundance – and those are just the ones we know about. In such numbers, in fact, as to give lie to “representative” democracy. They scream for more direct forms of democracy, including referenda and plebiscites – we’d not have our regional transit mess if the people had their say instead of being saddled with poor “representatives,” for instance.

Those in power won’t cede control easily. The public will have to take it. Communication technology theoretically provides the means to exercise direct control, though only if it widens the disingenuous public consultation farce we see from governments today: so few people participate as to not only render it undemocratic, but the process opens the door to the tyranny of the minority while providing cover to officials bent on circumventing the public will.

There’s some inspiration to be found in the Wellesley residents pushing back against the huge tax increases. Staying power will be key, however.

Politicians at all levels trust in the passage of time and other distractions to put their bad decisions out of mind when elections come around, though eventually they compound so much to the point they can no longer be overlooked – it’s why we vote the bums out, particularly at the federal and provincial levels.

For the Wellesley residents’ efforts to be most successful, the pressure must be sustained.

In the short-term, the township needs to explain the recreation centre situation, perhaps even touching on the rationale for subsidies but certainly laying out the decision to spend so much, the full impact of financing (e.g. how many years will everybody pay more) and the true impact of the operating budget increases, which could continue in perpetuity.

The rec. facility aside, huge tax increases were the norm this year, with none of the local municipalities, Woolwich included, providing good arguments for why cuts couldn’t have been made instead, rolling back years of poor spending decisions inflicted on the public without their consent.

As with Wellesley, residents would be well advised to organize and put continuous pressure on their elected officials to explain the spending choices, and to roll them back if good answers are not forthcoming. Ultimately, those looking for better governance will have to put forward candidates who will actually deliver on open, transparent and accountable government.

Due to scale and the amounts of money in play, the issues are naturally much larger at the federal and provincial levels, though the dilemmas are the same. Self-interest is rampant. Changing that has proven difficult, with public apathy – cultivated and encouraged – a big factor.

What we have at all levels of government is a reverse Robin Hood situation for the benefit of the votes government receives. There is, of course, an even smaller few who benefit even more – these are the big donors and benefactors who pull the strings. Those with self-interest – i.e. positions diametrically opposed to the public good – are happy with the status quo.

At the municipal level, elected officials have to be held to account. In turn, they have to push back against staff – saying no to spending, especially on hiring and salaries – and sanctioning those responsible for bad advice and poor outcomes. Without consequences, it’s the citizens that will suffer.

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Steve Kannon

A community newspaper journalist for three decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.