Like most people, my first response was a negative one when I heard the news that public hearings were to be removed from the approval process for downtown developments. But with some reflection, I have changed my perspective and I hope others will pause to look at this situation a little deeper too.
The removal of public hearings doesn’t mean that council has eliminated all opportunities for public input. The law would never allow that to happen; Section 890(4) of the Community Charter only allows council to waive public hearings if a planned development already conforms to the official community plan (OCP). Downtown planning is part of the community’s OCP and it’s an area that’s been given special attention since January 2013. That planning process has involved numerous collaborative public engagements, including open houses, a charette and workshops.
Both before and during my time on council, I sat through many public hearings, including two of the longest in Canadian history. I can testify that these are usually not effective processes for collaborating or building consensus. To the contrary, they often polarize people, creating deep tensions within the community. Public hearings have the effect of magnifying differences rather than examining common ground. After almost every public hearing, there is a group that feels they have been defeated, and this has a very damaging effect on people’s trust in both government and business.
The fact is that any citizen can (and should) be in contact with the members of their council, legislature and parliament readily and frequently. It is an illusion that we need a formal process or a large group to have our say. In the same way as we would engage our child’s teacher, we must be prepared to engage our community’s caretakers. This often means simply making a phone call, sending an email, or setting up a brief meeting. If needed, it is easy to appear as a delegation before council. With or without a public hearing, one always has the right to address their elected representatives.
If the council had decided to ignore the public, I would be the first in line to protest, but this situation is not as it might first appear. In this case, I believe that council has heard the urgency of the downtown’s residents and merchants who want quick and decisive solutions to save their neighbourhood. The public has had a voice through deliberative processes and council has decided to put the public’s wishes into action. That makes good sense to me.