Rory Nisan: This should be #OurDecision.

opinionandcommentBy Rory Nisan

January 23rd, 2018



After writing my article “Emerging Democratic Issues at City Hall” on December 21, I hoped for more respect for the views of Burlington citizens and, more generally, a more transparent attitude from the City as it enters a critical time in its development. Time will tell, yet there have been numerous developments in recent weeks that continue to give cause for concern for the state of our city from a democratic perspective. Here are four:

(1) The letter from City Manager James Ridge to EcoB:

Ridge quote

While within his right to send a toughly worded letter threatening legal action related to a couple of political lines on a website, Mr. Ridge would benefit from using more honey and less vinegar. He could have invited ECoB for a meeting to discuss his concerns and to hear from ECoB also. It would be entirely proper and reasonable for the City Manager to reach out to a community group and meet with them and hear their concerns.

Instead, he used the threat of employing taxpayer money to sue the taxpayers themselves. Would expensive litigation have benefited the City, the taxpayers or ECoB? In fact, the only beneficiaries would have been the lawyers. ECoB could have called his bluff but took the high road and removed the supposedly offensive language from their website without delay.

Mr. Ridge should seek out the high road also.

(2) #GetTheFacts
A social media campaign is underway from the City of Burlington, using the hashtag GetTheFacts to make posts on Facebook supporting the draft official plan. Having worked in strategic communications myself, I can see the hallmarks of a deliberate intent to change citizens’ views about the downtown hub especially.

What is wrong with the city promoting its own plan? If it were an agreed upon, final document, there would be no problem.

However, this plan is anything but official. City Council has not voted, yet the unelected communications arm of the city is promoting the plan in order to sway the public’s opinion and that of city councillors, and is using taxpayer funds to do so by paying the salary of the communications staff.

If you don’t believe there is a strong bias, take a look at this post, which states that “higher density developments are located near the Burlington GO station away from the downtown core” when the proposal for the downtown includes permission for 17-story buildings. If 17 stories isn’t high density in Burlington, I don’t know what is. #GetTheFacts is the hashtag but these sound more like alternative facts.

Ask Grow Bold

This campaign should stop immediately; the City needs to get out of the way and allow the democratic process to unfold.

The city has no business influencing anyone about plans that are not approved. This is textbook anti-democratic.

This is almost certainly not the case of a rogue social media specialist. These deliberate strategies are typically thought through and assigned at senior levels. I have found the social media team at the city to be second-to-none in professionalism and providing information to the public.

This campaign should stop immediately; the City needs to get out of the way and allow the democratic process to unfold.

(3) $278,970
We learned recently that Mary Lou Tanner has been promoted to Deputy City Manager. A new position was created, and Ms. Tanner won an internal competition to be named to the role.


Former Director of Planning Mary Lou Tanner was appointed Deputy City Manager.

The City Manager should feel free to re-organize as he sees fit, but he asked for new money to pay for the position, instead of making the internal sacrifices necessary to have a new senior executive role.

Councillor Meed Ward put forward a motion asking that the new salary be included within the existing corporate management human resources budget but it failed at committee.

How much is a Deputy City Manager paid? Her exact salary isn’t known but once CPP, EI, benefits and other costs are added up, the new position will cost the taxpayer $278,970.

Is that good value for money? What else could the city do with that kind of cash? Here is one hypothetical example of many: the cost of a pilot project in Oakville in 2011 allowing seniors to ride free one day per week was estimated to be $45,200 per year and increased ridership on Mondays during the pilot by 578%. A rough, back-of-the-napkin calculation would indicate that we could allow seniors to ride free six days per week for less than the cost of the new Deputy City Manager.

Here is another idea. The $278,970 could be divided into four salaries of $69,742 to hire some top-notch staff to create a unit dedicated to improving the level of consultation and dialogue with taxpayers, building on best practices and ensuring that citizens’ view are heard at the highest levels and fully considered.

(4) Timing of the Reverse Town Hall
The Reverse Town Hall was a good initiative — an example of what Burlington needs in more supply. However, it was set at the last minute and on the same evening as a critical meeting for ECoB.

A charitable view of this would be that it was an unfortunate coincidence of timing.

A less charitable view would be that there was an attempt to undermine attendance at ECoB’s meeting by forcing people to pick between engagement sessions.

Goldring reverse town hall

Mayor explains what he heard at his Reverse Town Hall

As an optimist, and giving the benefit of the doubt, I prefer the former view. However, even that scenario would indicate an unfortunate lack of consideration of the political calendar in Burlington. More careful attention should be taken in the future, and if the City were taking a more inclusive approach to an important citizen-based committee, this error would not have occurred as outreach to ECoB at the same time as this event would have been on someone’s calendar.

Several of these four issues are connected in some manner, and they all concern democratic practice at City Hall. In an election year, I hope we can aspire to do better.

Councillors and the Mayor were given a mandate to govern in 2014. However, that mandate is not a carte blanche. They must return to the citizens regularly to check the pulse and ensure they are not outstripping their license to govern.

The Mayor taking questions at his State of the City Address is the right thing to do (though $45 tickets makes it very difficult for low- or fixed income individuals to be able to afford to attend and ask questions), as was the (unfortunately timed) Reverse Town Hall. Whenever an elected official puts themselves in the hot seat and takes un-moderated questions it is a positive development.

However, this City Council does not have a mandate to undertake the major changes envisioned in the updated Official Plan. A change of this magnitude needs to be put to the voters, if not as a referendum, then as an important element of an election’s discourse. Luckily, the 2018 election is right around the corner so it would be no trouble at all to delay a decision a few months.

A good and necessary first step was taken when the decision on the new Official Plan was delayed to April to allow more consultation. Going into important debates this week, we need more of this kind of reflection of the will of Burlingtonians.

To put it in social media terms, this should be #OurDecision.

rory shotRory 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.


Related content:

Nisan on Emerging Democratic Issues at City Hall

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8 comments to Rory Nisan: This should be #OurDecision.

  • craig gardner

    Perhaps it is not the bureaucrats who are wrong?? Perhaps we need some fresh blood amongst residents not at city hall?
    P.S. Rory your first point is way off base no one or group has the right to say what was said about a professional when likely they are not professionals in the field. City hall staff deserve same protection from bullying as anyone else and this was bullying.

  • Don

    Well put, Rory.
    Sorry PITA, but we’re beating a dead horse.
    It’s time for a wholesale change at City Hall.

  • Susie

    Well said Mr. Nisan, the points couldn’t be any clearer to us, now for the City to comprehend ????????

  • William

    Rory, thanks for taking the time to develop thoughtful insights on the broken culture at city hall. Burlington is not served by an evenhanded and fair minded bureaucracy who exist to serve the public. Rather, we have technocrats who see their role as imposing an impoverished agenda based on what they find fashionable – and are willing to spend vast sums of our money to promote it.

    Bless you for offering a charitable view of Goldring’s townhall. I’m not so inclined. My take is he was afraid of mixing it up with the public.

    I’m not impressed that he spent the time “listening”, without revealing his hand. Then, in the safety of his office, produces videos and blog posts that cannot be challenged in a public forum.

    Goldring is comfortable giving speeches. He is terrified of being in a public debate, where he would have to defend his position.

  • Judy Gilbert

    I sent the article to each council member 🙂

  • Hans

    Mr. Nisan would make a stellar City Manager.

  • George

    Excellent points Mr Nisan … You have certainly expressed the views of a lot of Burlington taxpayers and citizens.
    Have you considered running for Burlington Council? If you were to consider running I am sure you would have my vote and many others. Thank you for expressing the thoughts of Burlington’s people.

  • Kurt Koster

    Great article, now if only our members of council would read it.