Civility eroding part due to stifling of public voices
Re: “Time to bring civility back to our civilization”, (Citizen, Oct. 4)
Civility is a two way street. Recently Jon Lefebure, the chair of the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) board of directors comments on civility appeared in multiple newspaper articles regarding concerns around the lack of civility from the public (taxpayers) towards elected officials. Other publicly elected CVRD area directors and public officials have also commented or complained in newspaper articles and/or blogs recently about a lack of public civility.
I completely agree there is a growing widespread lack of civility in general in the world today, but, it is certainly not restricted or exclusive to publicly elected officials who are on the receiving end, far from it. CVRD board members and other publicly elected local officials might want to look inward before being so quick to point fingers at the hardworking, civic minded public who want to participate in the democratic process as the ones exclusively lacking in civility and the problem.
Recently I attended a CVRD public meeting. The first thing I was told, before I even sat down, was “you are not allowed to speak, you can only observe”. At the end of the meeting the floor was not opened up to the public for questions or comments. During this public meeting a one page handout was distributed, but was not offered or available for the members of the public in attendance; even though there were fewer than six local residents attending. I felt uninvited and unwelcome, like I had crashed a private gathering I wasn’t invited to attend.
The public no longer gets to speak at most CVRD public meetings unless they pre-apply in writing and are pre-approved prior to the meeting and within a specified time frame, and there is more. The person wanting to speak or ask a question must pre-determine what they want to say or ask at the public meeting. Once a local resident has jumped through all these pre-existing conditions, they may or may not receive approval to speak as a delegation at a local public meeting. How is this happening here in Canada, a shining star of democracy?
The CVRD elected board of directors is responsible for setting this burdensome policy and could reverse it at any time, if they so desired. CVRD staff must adhere to policy set by the board and so good people who work for the CVRD are unfortunately and unfairly the innocent ones on the receiving end of any public complaints or behavior lacking in civility, as it has been referred to recently by CVRD elected officials. Yet it is these same elected officials who created the problem by failing to consider unintended consequences of making bad public policy by restricting the public’s ability to speak at public meetings and stifling their voice. Public participation in local politics is a cornerstone of democracy and constitutionally protected. It is something that should be encouraged not suppressed.
Public access to view or print all CVRD public meeting minutes, agendas schedules and calendars has not been available or accessible to the public online for six months. A notice was first posted online explaining it was a software incompatibility problem and no solution was currently be sought. The wording of the online message is now amended apologizing for the inconvenience and a ‘back door’ solution offered that requires a person to shut down or disengage their computer’s security protection, possibly opening it up to malicious spyware, viruses and malware. This is the only solution members of the public have been offered in over six months. Again it is the CVRD employees who are unfairly left on the receiving end of public frustration or less than civil behavior. Yet again it is the CVRD elected board that could instruct this to be resolved tomorrow if they were so inclined, or viewed it as a priority. At a minimum the board could direct staff to immediately post all these public documents online as PDF files until the problem is resolved. Thereby mitigating the situation and diffusing any public angst it may be causing.
The collective voice of the taxpaying public is being drowned out of the conversation regarding how and where their hard earned property tax dollars are being spent by the CVRD, or why property taxes have continually increased. Unfair rules and restrictions are increasingly being placed on the public for just wanting to speak at public meetings or disagree with a public policy and be engaged in the democratic process. And the CVRD, through a committee set up by the Union of BC Municipalities, is looking at possibly further stifling public participation based on lack of civility. The local community belongs to the local resident electors, not the elected local government officials who are accountable to the electors, not special interests and those whose job it is to make public policy based on listening to the locals living in the community and addressing those electors’ major concerns.