Saturday, July 30, 2011

On the other hand...

Herman Turkstra has an intriguing editorial piece in today's Spec, 'Don't leave the LRT decision to a bunch of bureaucrats'. It's well worth the read, especially in how he frames this huge issue historically. 

But his main thrust concerns me: that of using a referendum to decide whether or not Hamilton should move forward with LRT. 

I believe in a greater degree of civic engagement on the part of residents in local governance. It's paramount to making things better. It's at the core of my belief system 'politics'-wise, and is front-and-centre here on this blog. 

But the thought of people 'voting' on an issue that's got so many implications, on so pivotal a concept... Well, it makes me cringe. 

Especially when taking into account that only 40% of eligible voters cast ballots in the past two elections. 

And that somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60% of these did so according to 'name recognition'. 

I'm not against a referendum. But I'm only for it if there is a concerted effort...and I don't just mean articles and ads in The Spec or an information display at City Hall for all to inform the public. 


Meaning town halls. 

Meaning information evenings. 

Meaning all Councillors having appropriate sections on their websites. 

Now, if after all this sincere effort apathy still rules the day, fine. But at least people will have been given a proper chance to develop an informed opinion. 

As it stands, our current paradigm in local governance is too rife with cynicism and indifference to stake everything on a referendum. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don't trust the average person to care enough to make the effort to educate themselves about LRT even to the degree they might in choosing their next holiday destination. Getting people involved in decisions that have such enormous implications on what their city is going to become is only a good idea if this enfranchisement goes hand-in-hand with sought-out information. 

As Sy Syms said, 'An educated consumer is our best customer.'

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thought of the...Year.

Social media, blogs, message boards, smart phones, anything that's used to connect people, they're all wonderful mechanisms towards effecting genuine understanding, authentic change, real intimacy. But they're only tools, each one a means to an end. They're not ends in themselves. They can't be, in the same way that the telephone wasn't an end in itself. 

While I'm heartened by the power of the Internet to increasingly make things happen (or make nothing happen all the faster), I believe that ultimately, we need to be breathing the same air in order for something to happen in a specific place, to effect real change in the real world. 

Hence this new motto of mine. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What happens in a marriage when there's no genuine ongoing dialogue between the partners? When activities and the day-to-day practicals aren't really discussed so much as announced, then implemented? (Then reacted to. Oi vey!)

What happens in a family when there's only perfunctory communication between the parents and children? How is the familial dynamic affected?

What happens in the workplace when there's a dearth of back-and-forth between employer and employee? What happens to morale, what happens to productivity...what happens to the viability and success of the business?

As you know, I've been blogging for nearly a year now about 'increasing the relationship of engagement between residents and Councillors'. The gist of these editorials has been to imagine a different local governance landscape, one that's about as far away on the continuum from 'the resident votes every four years and then gets on with their life' and 'the Councillor is voted in and is left alone to do their job...without having to be worried about their constituents 'bothering' them'. 

What's been unfolding on the GO/LRT front has been setting off alarms for me in this regard. So not only is there seemingly (please note my generous slant) a decided lack of visionary, confident leadership, there's some pretty crap communication going on. (Anyone read the 'response' from Mayor Bratina to the Durand Neighbourhood Association regarding LRT?)

So here I am, a needle chronically stuck in the groove, the whiney, yammering voice bullhorning his belief: we need 'town hall meetings' regularly going on within the city. For each ward, and for the community-as-a-whole. Ones that are streamed online, ones that are posted on YouTube. Put on by every Councillor, as well as the Mayor. (I see no reason why they can't be hosted by The Hamiltonian, Raise the Hammer, Urbanicity as well as the usual MSM bunch.) Issues such as LRT, GO, and as raised by a commenter on The Hamiltonian, the Barton Street Pan Am Games Stadium Clean-up, all of these need to be part of the general, ongoing discussion that a thriving, functional City must sustain in order to qualify as being 'functional'. 

Solid marriages, families, organizations need healthy dialogue; why do we believe a municipal relationship should be any different?

Friday, July 22, 2011

As a result of happenchance of the most serendipitous kind, I'm reading John C. Maxwell's 'Thinking for a Change'. Now, I didn't pick it up because of what's unfolding in Hamilton regarding LRT and all the associated discussions about leadership and vision, but a section I just came to really stood out for me. Which is why I'm taking the time to type and relate it. 

You can find many big-picture thinkers who aren't leaders, but you will find few leaders who are not big-picture thinkers. Leaders must be able to do many important things for their people:

-See the vision before their people do.  That's one of the reasons they are able to lead. Leaders not only see the big picture before others do, they also see more of it. This allows them to...

-Size up situations, taking into account many variables. Leaders who see the big picture discern possibilities as well as problems. As Max de Pree says, the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. Doing that allows the leader to form a foundation on which to build the vision. Once leaders have done that, they...

-Sketch a picture of where they're going. Too often when people present the big picture, it is drawn up as a bright image without any challenges or obstacles. That false portrait leads only to discouragement when followers actually take the journey. The goal of leaders shouldn't be merely to make their people feel good, but to help them be good and accomplish the dream. The vision, shown accurately, will allow leaders to...

-Show how the future connects with the past to make the journey more meaningful. Most people want to touch their past before they will reach out to their future. When they can do that, moving forward seems natural and right. When leaders recognize this need for connection and bridge it, then they can...

-Seize the moment when the timing is right. In leadership, when to move is as important as what you do. As Winston Churchill said, "There comes a special moment in everyone's life, a moment for which that person was born... When he seizes is his finest hour."

Granted, we in Hamilton are limited in our perceptions of what's going on at City Hall by the media coverage we're provided, as well as the degree to which each Councillor's connects with their constituents. But these days, I don't think it's being too cynical to wonder just how much certifiable leadership is taking place in our local governance, nor is it being too skeptical to wonder just how much vision is present. Not to put too fine a point on it, are there any 'big-picture thinkers' on Council?

As I stated in a recent editorial addressing this very issue, leaders should be proceeding at all times with a sense of responsibility and pragmatism while consistently driving the city forward with vision. So our leaders should be inspiring residents to strive for something greater, a better, more liveable city, fostering a greater general ability to see the big picture...nurturing a collective vision of Hamilton. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vision? We don't need no stinkin' vision!

The July 20th edition of The Spec features an excellent article by 'Raise the Hammer' Editor and local activist Ryan McGreal. The theme is 'urban focus'.

For some/many people within The Amalgamated City of Hamilton, what Ryan has to say runs contrary to how they see things. (I'm not talking about elected officials here, although that opens up an interesting can of worms...) In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the idea of a revitalized, recovered and restored urban area isn't even on the radar for these people, the notion doesn't even register.

People want what they want...and what they've decided (unconsciously or not) they don't want...they don't want. For the people who have no connection to Downtown Hamilton -and yes, I do realize that Ryan isn't just focusing on this area, but for the purposes of this editorial, I am- it matters not one whit whether or not this part of the city is resurrected to yet another iteration of glory. I'm convinced that these people have either traditionally not had any attachment to Downtown even though they've lived within the contiguous limits of The City of Hamilton, or they've set themselves up in 'the suburbs' and especially because what's going on in Downtown has been 'in process' for over two decades, aren't aware of how vibrant it's been at various times over the past century. For either group, they just don't give a good God-damn.

Which is fine.

I don't blame people who have landed in the periphery of a city for not being strident about the city's downtown. Especially when the Downtown has little to offer. (And can't meet their needs.) And I don't blame those people who have a legacy non-relationship with the core, either. Habits mean comfort, and for many people, frequenting Downtown Hamilton has never been there's little or no comfort connected to it. 

(I may as well deal with the feelings of those in the municipalities who were forced into amalgamation with Hamilton, specifically Stoney Creek, Dundas and Ancaster. I understand and appreciate the resentment and resistance of these residents regarding chipping in towards something that, in their eyes, they may never be inclined to take advantage of. Just as I understand and appreciate the inequities associated with a forced amalgamation.)

But these issues cannot be left to parochial, narrow-minded individuals who, let's face it, have in common (amongst other things) a distinct lack of in-depth examination of the risks and benefits (!!!) of such a mindset. (Including, fittingly, LRT.) My belief is that their opinions tend to result from indifference, fear of change, and a general lack of vision.

But then, that's what we have civic leaders for.

That's what we have elected officials for.

That's why we have Councillors and a Mayor.

They're supposed to not only listen to their constituents and act reasonably on reasonable issues, but provide leadership. (Which yes, is more than merely 'doing as they're requested' or lobbied.) They're supposed to be more informed than just about any of the residents, and as such, be able to shine light where obdurateness and apathy tend to produce stultifying darkness.

They're supposed to balance pragmatism with vision. 

Actually, allow me to re-phrase that: 'while proceeding at all times with a sense of responsibility and pragmatism, they should consistently be driving the city forward with vision.' Because by-and-large, vision ain't gonna come from the average resident. Not within the construct we have in front of us currently. 

Some of my favourite bits from Ryan's article:

"Hamilton must make urban revitalization its number own growth priority. The alternative of continued suburban development doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay for the infrastructure that is needed to service it.

Each new subdivision actually increases the city’s net liabilities. And as the urban boundary expands, more distant suburbs are even more expensive to service.
We have been running this pyramid scheme for decades, paying for yesterday’s expansion with tomorrow’s. As a result, our existing infrastructure idles while we spend money we don’t have to build more infrastructure that can’t pay for itself.

An urban focus doesn’t mean an end to our suburbs. Rather, it means we need an economic engine that generates enough wealth to pay for those suburbs. As Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut famously said, “You can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

...because they're actually connected.

Each year...going back decades...tens of thousands of people are killed on North American asphalt and cement. 

And nobody blinks. (Well, they blink...but they also shrug; it's regarded as nothing more -or less- than the cost of doing business in a automobile-centric world.)

Each year, governance gets mucked-up on just about every level imaginable. 

And while people do more than blink...not much changes within the constructs. Bad voter turnout is bemoaned, another effort at generating greater urgency next time is begun...but generally, people shrug, and as their governance 'goes south', they return to their couches and expand their fattening posteriors...and vow to 'vote the bums out!' next time. 

I read an interesting article recently having to do with car innovation. Manufacturing engineers have been providing more and more 'safety features' not just to have a leg-up on the competition, but to compensate for the fact that there is an ever-widening chasm easily referred to as 'driver capability'. 

Let me rephrase that: engineers are having to make up for the fact that people don't take driving seriously enough...and the licensing bodies are complicit in want to take their skills far enough along the continuum of proficiency.

They're making up for the fact that people just don't care. 

People are lazy about their driving. 

There's little pride in the skill. 

Motorists just want to get to where they're going...period. 

They can't be bothered to bring to bear any effort towards excellence...beyond passing the required tests. 

And so evidently, automobile manufacturers are doing what they can to reduce the depth and breadth of that aforementioned 'chasm'. When really, given how many people die on North American highways each year...never mind the injured and the maimed...doncha think if we had half a collective brain in our collective heads, we'd do what we could to equip ourselves better? 

But driving is seen as a 'right'. Not a privilege, as it actually was intended, and worse, not an honourable skill to be learned, developed, honed. (Such a 'right' that the taking away of a person's license is seen as a last resort, a horrible assailing of individuality, a 'right' so deeply embedded in our car-centric culture that a 15 year old recently took out the family fan for a joyride...and in the mayhem that followed, a police officer was killed, and this teenager is, as I type this, a quadriplegic.)

Now, voting? Involvement and engagement in governance? Specifically the local variety? 

Well, voting is a right. And people by-and-large tend to exercise this right just as mindlessly. People don't take it seriously. They don't put a lot of thought into it. (As I've yammered on about time after time on this blog.) And they certainly don't develop their skills, they don't hone their acuity over the course of time...mostly because they don't (again, by-and-large) get involved in their own governance, they don't put any time into engagement with their representatives at City Hall, they don't develop any deepening understanding of the process and how they can impact their very lives just by taking part. 


Imagine for a second roadways used by motorists who were markedly more proficient, substantially more skilled, who had a real relationship with driving, one where aptitude went hand-in-hand with a passionate desire to excel at moving these heavy conglomerations of steel and glass around. Imagine how much safer our streets and highways would be. Not only that, imagine how much more humane our urban roads would be walkability-wise. 

Well, imagine as well, local governance where citizens not only took voting fact, were so prideful of being able to cast a ballot that twice the numbers did the deed as generally do presently...but actually saw their role in the maintaining of their neighbourhoods, their communities, their city as being the equal of their elected representatives and of Council's supporting staffs. 

It's astounding where the potent mélange of apathy and arrogance will take a society. 

It's equally astounding to consider how different things could be if we charted a different course, 'north-northwest three and a half degrees', for example. 

Maybe we need some 'astounding' in our lives, huh?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Regarding LRT: From Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark

As a result of discussion on Raise the Hammer concerning LRT that had begun with this Spec article, I was prompted to get in touch with Councillor Clark for some clarification on quotes such as this: 

"Clark says the city’s first nodes and corridors land use study that looks at planning for high- and mid-rise development along Queenston, Main and King streets from Eastgate Square to McMaster University (dubbed the B-Line after the HSR express bus line) should be focused instead on Rymal Road, where he says development is happening without any sort of plan in place."

Here's what he had to say in an email correspondence: 

"The City is about to start the next phase of our urban official plan process which is the planning for Nodes and Corridors.

There are a number of Nodes and Corridors that need to be completed: including but not limited to Upper James, Rymal, James Street, Lower Centennial Parkway, Fennell, and the B- Line. Staff brought forward the B-Line as the first Corridor to be planned. They argued that their decision had nothing to do with the LRT. Yet, upon further discussion, we learned that the B-Line was not the planning staffs first choice. In fact, the only reason it was pushed forward was that they could use money from the LRT project.

The facts are that the council has not adopted or set any principles for corridor planning. James Street and Centennial have a sense of urgency since Go Transit has indicated their preference for access points at those locations. Upper James has merit for inclusion as a preference because of the development as well as Rymal.

Here were some of my questions.... Why isn't council setting the priorities? Why have we not had a status update on LRT since the beginning of the year? Why have we not had an update on the status the $3 million LRT fund? Why are our planning priorities being sidelined for LRT that may or may not come? What is the status on the funding request to pay for LRT? How much will Hamilton have to contribute?

Ultimately, we need answers to these and other questions before anyone makes a decision.

To be very clear, Council has not approved LRT. Council approved designating LRT as the preferred option for the City and directed staff to develop the business case and requisite assessments. At the time, council supported the concept to get the data required to make a decision. The province gave us $3 million to complete the studies. 

Nobody on council has stated that they oppose LRT or that we are reconsidering. We are acting with all due diligence, waiting for a decision from the province on funding at which point we must make a final decision.

Respectfully, proponents of LRT are over-reacting to councillor's rationale, reasonable and appropriate questions."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What was actually said...

A 'Letter to the Editor' published June 29th, 2011:

This missive is in response to Letters to The Editor and Stoney Creek News articles that have run over the past couple of years regarding the metered parking brouhaha that has so dominated the psyches of so many. 

The standard perception is that metered parking within the BIA has been a death-blow, delivered by an arbitrary, autocratic Amalgamated City of Hamilton. As I have maintained ad nauseam, this tack is hardly more than a convenient windmill to tilt out, an opportunity to galvanize the community against something tangible, a facile demonization...a wonderful example of 'Us vs Them'. I've found it sad that nobody has chosen to really open up the conversation to authentically examine the issue of 'Why Downtown Stoney Creek Isn't Much of Anything At All', especially when the community sorely deserves so much more. 

(For the record: I do not believe that as things currently stand there should be metered street parking in the BIA. The area is simply too vulnerable. But please consider that metered parking has not created this 'vulnerability', but rather, accentuated it. Additionally, broad discussion of this topic has been continually presented on the civic activism commentary blog 'My Stoney Creek'.)

And so, in contrast to the 'Metered Parking Kills Downtown Stoney Creek!!!' mindset, here's my 'Top Five List of Factors that Contribute to Downtown Stoney Creek's Woes':

5) Insufficient, hassle-free parking access for staff. The Great Forgotten, Unspoken Issue. (And any response from the City involving the facile suggestion of staff switching to 'public transit' should warrant a smack.)  

4) Monopolization of Municipal Lot #3 by Health Sciences Building clients. The Even BIGGER Forgotten, Unspoken Issue. 

3) Customer Laziness. There's free parking in Lot #3. But people are seemingly unwilling to make the trek from King Street and its merchants. It's fascinating to compare the distances shoppers are quite agreeable to logging within malls. When there are worthwhile reasons to make the trek. But then, this directly leads to...

2) Lack of genuine anchor tenants. Go to any thriving BIA in Ontario. Having to pay for parking is not an issue. If there are compelling reasons to shop somewhere...people will pay for the opportunity. To believe otherwise in this changing world is the height of naïveté. But Downtown Stoney Creek lacks a sufficient number of these businesses. (Frankly, there's really only one.) If there were strong enough anchor tenants, and enough of know, as in Dundas, for example...excursions would be the norm and people would walk 200 feet and not think twice. I guarantee it. And of course, this is primarily the result of...

1) Apparent dearth of incentive, inventiveness and initiative where 'development' is concerned. Yes, there have been tough times in the economy. Yes,  mall shopping continues to be many shoppers' default. Yes, the perception of 'parking problems' doesn't help when trying to corral good, solid businesses as tenants. But Downtown Stoney Creek...despite having as its catchment area a longstanding economically-stable community, and here I'm talking about the Golden Square Mile of Centennial to Gray, Hwy #8 to the Escarpment...has been sequestered in a bubble for the longest time; it's actually a wonder that things aren't worse. Downtown Stoney Creek has almost staggering potential as a 'main street', something its residents could be proud of. It just requires a different mix for this potential to be realized. (And I have to add this: if the trend to get 'professionals' to move into the BIA continues, any worries about the Downtown will vanish...because there won't be a 'downtown'.)

Finally, I'm quite aware that it's the marketplace that determines whether or not a downtown, a main street, a city's core possesses vibrancy and vitality, whether or not the area is something that's integral to the community it serves. And that the marketplace includes the business owners, developers, renters, business associations, the municipal framework within which it all works...and of course, the potential customers themselves. But to reverse what I've pointed out, for Downtown Stoney Creek to be re-imagined, re-invented and resurrected, the realities of the situation need to be openly and honestly acknowledged, reported and discussed by all concerned. Something that I don't believe hasn't occurred yet. At least not out loud.