Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bridge too fast scares up thousands of resisters

OK, I get Victoria councillor Lynn Hunter’s concern about deciding things by referendum. Direct democracy can be an unpredictable and potentially harmful form of governance, as the state of California can attest.
But when it comes to the Johnson Street bridge, I understand completely why more than 9,000 Victoria citizens have signed petitions demanding that city council’s decision to replace the bridge be put to referendum.
For one thing, the idea of replacing the bridge came out of nowhere nine months ago. City council (with the exception of Geoff Young) was such an enthusiastic booster from the start that no one with a wrong word to say about the project was given any chance to air their concerns.
And it was council who created the “alternate approval process” that brought us to this point. Usually the city lets its citizens participate in the decision-making process, but this time council took the position that the answer was “yes” unless they heard otherwise by Jan. 4 from at least 10 per cent of eligible city voters. So those with concerns about the need for a $63 million rebuild of the bridge set out to collect enough signatures to make that happen.
That they succeeded isn’t a blow to representative democracy, as Hunter portrayed it at the Dec. 10 council meeting (See the B Channel video). It’s just the only option people had to try to slow the train down.
The rap against governance by referendum is that poorer decisions will result because the public simply isn’t as informed and knowledgeable about issues compared to their elected representatives. Applied here, that theory presumes Victoria council spent considerable time weighing the options before deciding that replacing the 85-year-old Johnson Street bridge was better than repairing it.
But how many days do you think went by between the first-ever mention in the Times Colonist of the need to replace the bridge, and city council’s vote of approval? Twenty-one. Knock out the weekends and that leaves just 15 working days for council to have reflected on the massive project.
Seeing as they get together only a couple times a week and are wrestling with dozens of other issues at those meetings as well, I’d be surprised if councillors spent more than a few hours all told mulling the bridge issue.
A year ago when the current council was newly elected, not one of them was talking about replacing the bridge. It was a non-issue. Back in 1999, the city spent just over $1 million getting the bridge repaired and resurfaced, and at that time told the public that the refit meant “several more decades of life” for the bridge.
So how did we suddenly end up on a fast track to bridge replacement? How did it become “the number-one infrastructure policy” for the city, as Mayor Dean Fortin described it? I can’t shake the feeling that if the federal government hadn’t been throwing money around last year for capital projects, we still wouldn’t be talking about the Johnson Street bridge.
There’s nothing wrong with the city trying to get its hands on some federal funding, of course. It landed $21 million in the end, half of what it was hoping for but still a nice chunk of change.
But Victoria’s citizens still face being on the hook for two-thirds of the costly rebuild of a bridge that many people don’t believe needs to be replaced . And it’s clear from the results of the counter-petition this week that several thousand of them felt strongly enough about that to put their name to the call for a referendum.
Congratulations to Ross Crockford, Mat Wright and Yule Heibel, the three Victorians who built a solid grassroots campaign out of a conversation that started around a summer barbecue among people puzzling over why the city was suddenly hell-bent on rebuilding the bridge. More than 100 volunteers signed on to help collect signatures. (Here's their site.)
They weren’t looking to make trouble. They weren’t trying to throw a wrench into representative democracy. They just wanted more answers than city hall was willing to give them.
I talked to Crockford, a journalist, this week. The story of how he ended up a spokesman for the bridge revolt is charmingly happenstance, and would likely hearten Hunter as a fine example of democracy in action if she could just break free of the group-think at the council table these days.
People want a referendum on the bridge because they aren’t convinced city council is acting in their best interests. With no chance for public input and a warp-speed approval process, who can blame them?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great column. I was disappointed by Hunter's comments as well. Phrases like "mob rule" and dark intonations about the petition drive being funded by secretive "moneyed interests" served no constructive purpose and made the issue more divisive than it needed to be.

Mat Wright said...

Thank you Jody for an insightful article, and apologies for not commenting until now.

It is truly the volunteers who need recognition, and the entire community who responded. This should not be an 'us vs them' issue, but the pressure is on the City of Victoria - Mayor, Council and staff, to change the paradigm to pro-active engagement.

The Blue Bridge issue, and the entire petition campaign, exposed fundamentals - accountability, transparency, accessibility, open information...