Rory Nisan on Emerging Democratic Issues at City Hall

opinionandcommentBy Rory Nisan

December 21st, 2017



There has been a disconcerting trend at city hall where language is being used as a tool to manufacture consent. The most concerning has been the use of the word “emerging”. This was used during the recent waterfront development consultations (emerging preferred concept), as well as in reference to the city’s official plan (emerging vision).

city hall with flag poles

Can the democratic process flourish at city hall?

What is wrong with emerging concepts and emerging visions? The problem is that neither has been voted on by the duly elected representatives of the city. Planning staff, or even the city manager cannot state that anything is “emerging” until it has been democratically decided. By doing so, they are undermining the all-important democratic process, and this can lead to citizens being led to believe that decisions have been made long before they have been.

Do city planners see themselves in the driver’s seat, with city Councillors and the mayor also in the car, and the city’s citizens running behind, trying to catch up?

To extend the metaphor, in a well-functioning democracy the elected representatives may be in the driver’s seat, but with citizens sitting shotgun, holding the map and able to pick new drivers at regular intervals.

Planning staff should promise  city council not undermine democratic space by using misleading language regarding unapproved plans in the future.

Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of democratic principles in some offices of city hall extends to members of city council. Councillor Paul Sharman, in his recent blog post, made clear that he doesn’t understand a second fundamental principle of democracy: it is about much more than elections.

Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman is usually very direct, tends to want to see data that is verifiable and expects to get his way.

Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman talked down to his constituents when he said, “The issues are quite complex.”

Regarding 421-431 Brant street, Councillor Sharman could have demonstrated that he was listening to Burlingtonians and reflecting their concerns at city hall. Instead, Councillor Sharman talked down to his constituents when he said, “The issues are quite complex. Council was elected to understand all the issues and to figure how to address concerns of the entire population.”

Issues are complex. Water is wet.
It is impossible to address the concerns of “the entire population” because it is impossible to know the views of everyone in the city. Instead, council is expected to listen to constituents because those who speak up have the greatest investment in the issue at hand. Council must at a minimum balance those concerns with a broader perspective. One cannot simply dismiss concerns raised as not representing the entire population. Nor can one use “NIMBY” as a rhetorical device to put down anyone who does not want a high rise downtown on Brant street.

Councillor Dennison employed a similar argument in dismissing a petition with over 1000 signatures related to the development at 421-431 Brant, saying that he had to represent the views of all Burlingtonians, not 1000.

Dennison announcing

Ward 4 city Councillor Jack Dennison – has yet to see a citizen petition that cannot be dismissed easily.

Petitions are at the core of democratic action, so important that they can be registered in parliaments around the world. They are a demonstration of whether social licence is given to politicians to proceed. They cannot be dismissed so easily. In this case, there is so little support for 421-431 Brant street – no petition in support of the project – yet strong opposition.

Councillor Sharman also lectured his constituents in a related Facebook post on the Official Plan, writing:

“What is generally not appreciated by community members is the city is sub organization [sic] of the province of Ontario, not an independent organization. The role of the City is to implement plans established by the province almost without question. It does require interpretation though, hence the official plan and all of the angst it is causing.”

This paragraph deserves a close look as it reveals how a Councillor approaches his job and the role of his constituents.

First, he makes a broad generalization of the community, presuming that we are unaware of the municipality’s position within the provincial government framework. Many of us are well aware that the municipality is part of the Province of Ontario – anyone who has even thought about the role of the Ontario Municipal Board recognizes that municipalities are not islands. So why lecture us?

Second, he says, “The role of the City is to implement plans established by the province almost without question.” I have not seen any provincial legislation that limits the ability of city councils to lobby the province for changes, to even demand changes to plans that it sees as inappropriate. Questioning, debating, requesting, suggesting, pleading and persuading are all actions that can be taken by municipalities when it sees plans that are contrary to the best interests of a city. Contrary to Councillor Sharman’s assertion, there is much give and take between municipalities and the province. It is unfortunate that Councillor Sharman appears to have ceded that role in favour of the ostrich approach.

Finally, Councillor Sharman reduces the legitimate concerns of constituents to “angst”, an emotional response, implying that the community is not thinking clearly, and would understand the real world if only they could put their feelings aside, be quiet and listen. He is blaming constituents for behaving foolishly and letting emotion cloud their judgement.

Ballot going in boxWhen an elected leader does not listen to their constituents, they are not respecting their constituents. Leadership that believes it “knows best” has a deleterious effect on our democratic institutions.

Politicians who do not understand the importance of social licence and of representing constituents throughout their terms must be taught that lesson at the polls, as it remains the strongest weapon of democracy.

rory closeupRory Nisan is a long-time Burlington resident and Lester B. Pearson High School alumnus. He has been an active member of the Save Pearson community organization.

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13 comments to Rory Nisan on Emerging Democratic Issues at City Hall

  • William

    Rory thanks for sharing your excellent analysis.

    Public sentiment is turning against this council. When a community is stable, most people ignore what happens at city hall.

    Not so now.

    With the city hall’s self-inflicted blunders, we have low tolerance for their condescending attitudes; their rubber-stamping of staff agendas; their lack of conviction and courage to have higher ambitions for our city; their fear of challenging the authority of the OMB or the province’s Places to Grow mandate; and their unwillingness to give us a heads up on big proposals to change the city.

    Council is made up of fearful, insecure people – only two of them seem comfortable in their own skin (MMW and Dennison). Bad things happen when emotionally frustrated people are given too much authority.

  • Joe Gaetan

    Shannon: Correction, I live in the building on Maple you refer to and delegated against 421 Brant. Reason, council voted against our current official plan limit of 12 storeys and the new and yet unapproved official plan limit of 17 storeys. This decision is precedent setting, another good reason why it should not have been approved.
    With regards to planning, they are paid to do a job, sometimes they get it right sometime the opposite is true, and council do not accept the report. If you are really interested and want to learn more, please acquaint yourself with the 374 Martha St. (rejected by planning and council) and 4853 Alton Drive (recommended by planning rejected by council) projects.

    • Shannon

      Thanks for wanting to correct me Joe but you misunderstood my comment. I meant that we did not really hear those residents’ voices in regards to their own particular building, as a contrast to all the arguments that had been made against it. I will add that that site on Maple was originally zoned for 10-storeys in the Official Plan.

      • Joe Gaetan

        Shannon:Got it and you are correct about how Maple development started. My apologies for not getting it first time around.Cheers, Joe

  • Shannon

    “Those who speak up have the greatest investment in the issue at hand”? Who says? And herein lies the problem in Burlington. If a bunch of folks delegate against something at City Hall and then things go a different way, they conclude that democracy has somehow been compromised and the will of the majority has been ignored. We ALL have an investment in decisions made about our city and there are tens of thousands of residents no one may ever hear from. People tend to make themselves heard when they’re adamantly against something much more than when they support or don’t have a problem with it.

    Councillor Dennison is absolutely right when he says he needs to represent the views of all Burlingtonians, not just the 1000 who signed a petition. People elect representatives to make the best decisions on their behalf. If you don’t like those decisions, of course, speak up. That’s democracy. By all means, vote for a different candidate in the next election if you want. There could very well be a shakeup in 2018 if most Burlington residents don’t like what’s happening. Fine. That’s democracy. That’s how it SHOULD work. But there’s a whole lot more to “democratic action” than Facebook petitions, thankfully, and it needs to be recognized that the loudest voices don’t always represent a majority. Just because most of the Burlington Gazette letter writers oppose something doesn’t mean everyone does. When the Strata building on Maple was in the works, there were lawn signs and delegations, an uproar about lack of parking spaces, and if you had listened to only those people you’d have been convinced it was going to destroy Burlington as we knew it and there would be car accidents right, left, and centre. But then hundreds of people quietly and happily bought units and were delighted to become downtown residents. Traffic along Maple moved just as smoothly as it had before. Did you ever hear from those new residents? No. Did you hear from the local shops and restaurants who benefited from their patronage? No. Did you hear from the thousands of other downtown residents who think it turned out to be a nice building and a good addition to the area? No. My point here is not whether specific projects or tall condos in particular have merit. My point is that this is an example of a case where there was considerable vocal dissent. That dissent was taken into consideration, but a responsible, appropriate decision was made in the interest of all residents.

    What’s especially frustrating about some comments on this site is the ongoing suggestion that planners and councillors are villains out on a mission to destroy Burlington. It’s one thing to disagree with the planning concepts at hand and the thinking behind them, but to make it personal and to write that councillors lack an understanding of democratic principles is irresponsible, and outrageously unfair.

    • Tom Muir


      I have noticed that you habitually make your own conclusions first, then make your own assertions or premises to fit, and then you provide the argument you want to tie these together to make whatever points you want.
      That way of discussion is backwards, as the purpose of argument is to establish true conclusions on the basis of true premises or assertions, or statements. You never offer any evidence to show your statements are true, or can be reasonably plausible, as true.
      Writing that other people are wrong is not an argument, and you look to be making up possible circumstances to make it look like they are.
      You are making conclusions whose content goes far beyond the content of your statements. And you endow your conclusions with a truth content that you cannot possibly derive from your statements. I can see no public rally in support of tall buildings downtown, or city Councilor attitudes towards residents.
      You can’t possibly know what the views of everyone in Burlington are, any more than Dennison can. First of all, you cannot possibly find out what all people, even tens of thousands as you put it, really think.
      And yet you presume that you can – by asserting, with no factual basis at all, that if people say nothing, they must be happy with things, support something, or don’t have a problem with it.
      This is no basis to discredit the views of those who do publicly express their views of complaint, but that is exactly what the most of your comment is aimed to do.
      This is a fallacy of generalization, based on impossible premises – things you cannot possibly know – to propel it, so you can jump to your conclusions, with your eyes firmly closed to the evidence you find unfavorable to your beliefs.
      You are entitled to your thoughts, but you don’t seem to like the nascent stirring by the public, and you are apparently, from your own words, intolerant and somewhat contemptuous of this.
      These are my thoughts of course, and that I’m entitled to, so take them with a dose of salt.

  • Tom Muir

    The behavior pattern displayed by a majority of Councilors and planners is that of a classic neurotic defense strategy.

    First, they deny and dismiss that there is any problem with what they are doing.

    Second, they rationalize what they are doing to support their denial of issues, and what they are doing.

    Third, they use various rhetoric to project the blame on the other side, to blame the complainants suffering the consequences.

    For example, disputing residents don’t understand, things are complex, they are Nimby, they don’t represent the entire population, they need to listen to our explanations, and so on and so on.

    As I said, it’s a classic psychological thing you can see all the time if you look carefully for the pattern in their talk.

    The end result is that they aren’t hearing us, and are determined to do what they want to.

  • Steve

    Thanks Rory as you touch on an extremely important issue that it increasingly seems like staff are in the drivers seat instead of our actual elected representatives. The staffs job is to implement the wishes of counsel and provide alternatives. Not to set policy or shoot down the wishes of the council or its citizens simply because it conflicts with their own philosophical views on urban planning.

    If there is a large turnover on city council in the coming election I think the staff may be in for a rude awakening on their role, something that seems sorely needed at this point.

  • Judy

    Great article. Thank you.

  • Stephen White

    Interesting comments and observations Rory.

    I suspect the Mayor, the Council, and City Hall staff, were totally unprepared for the backlash that ensued around 421 Brant, the Official Plan, and the Mobility Hubs. They went through the optics of consultation expecting citizens would “rubber stamp” their plans. Many attendees started asking basic questions that Planning staff and consultants were at a loss to answer. Now, City Hall finds itself in an unenviable position where the process has effectively tanked, public confidence has been shattered, significant concerns are being raised on several levels, and the Mayor and Council no longer know how to respond.

    The most positive part throughout this has been the emergence of Engage Citizens of Burlington. I look forward to seeing this group morph into a city-wide movement, and a number of strong candidates emerging to challenge incumbents in the next municipal election.

  • Hans

    Thank you for a superb article.

    Obviously, when most of them spout the same nonsense, Burlington’s council is having a serious “Groupthink” issue. Articles like this expose the problem.

    Apparently some members of council (the 5 who voted to turn Brant St. into a high rise district) need to be reminded that getting elected does not miraculously increase anyone’s intelligence and there are many constituents (Mr. Nisan and Mr. Muir, for example) that are much better endowed in that regard.

  • Phillip

    Rory, your article nailed the leadership attitudes at City Hall. The mayor and council totally believe in “top-down” leadership, mistakenly believing they know better than the residents who elected them. They are also mistaken in believing they have a mandate based on the election results, virtually uncontested, to do whatever they want despite the fact they did not run on a platform of developing a new OP or on the current intensification mania. They have succeeded in alienating enough of the residents that I suspect a wholesale housecleaning is in order in the election in 2018.

    Lastly, I want to point out the total hypocrisy of Jack Dennison’s comment that he had to represent the views of all Burlingtonians. I live in Jack’s ward and he did not seek anyone’s opinion but his own and the Cycling Lobby’sin voting for the New Street Bike Lanes. Apparently, Jack only like to represent the views of Burlingtonians when it is convenient.

  • Lynn

    Fantastically well said. I for one am getting really tired of Sharman and others “talking down” to constituents as you note. And agree with your assessment in how wrong he is (lazy?) to suggest it’s all the province’s fault and there’s nothing they can do. This is a common excuse of most members of council.