Montreal OpenFile recently published an article called Tangling with the 311, in which the author critiqued the hotline introduced by the City of Montreal in order to improve access to the City. The article prompted me to think back on my experience with 311 and the Accès Montréal network. Soon my comment on OpenFile got so long that I decided to write my own reflection based on the 5 or 6 times I’ve tangled with the 311:
1. Can the borough install some bike racks here? The guy at Accès Montréal was enthusiastic and helpful. He asked for specific details about where I wanted bike racks (along Sherbrooke W, between Décarie and Grand Boulevard), filled out a request and gave me a dossier number. There were bike racks on the street within a few weeks. Perhaps this was part of the plan all along, but I still sent a thank you email.
2. Can we drink in the park? The 311 operator was able to answer this one, clarifying that Montrealers are allowed to consume wine or beer in public as part of a picnic in all boroughs. What constitutes a picnic in the eyes of the law may be less clear.
3. Were can we have a bonfire? The 311 operator didn’t have an answer off-hand but put me in touch with the borough permits office who explained the rules around backyard cooking fires. Then I was shuffled to the recreation department to ask about fires in public spaces. Here I ran up against one of Montreal’s famous wishy-washy bylaws: although there was no rule banning public bonfires, we couldn’t get a permit unless it was for a special organized event “because of the precedent it would set.”
4. Can we organize a festival, with live music, food and beer in the park? Once again, the 311 operator put me in touch with the correct department (culture, sport et loisirs), who forwarded me the “application to use Ville de Montréal facilities” form by email. The request rapidly got bogged down in the question of insurance for the event, a burden that the city employee put squarely on my shoulders.
5. I received a notice about roadwork on de Maisonneuve and I’d like to suggest that they repave the bike path at the same time. This one did not go well. The operator I spoke to said the the borough knew nothing about the roadwork or the notice that I had received at home. She seemed incredulous that I would deign to tell the city how to do their job, and actually hung up on me. Interestingly, when I then wrote to my borough counsellor, he confirmed that the borough had no knowledge of the roadwork, which was being done as part of the MUHC hospital development. He asked me to send a copy of the notice, informed the borough director and followed up with me after.
I have had the chance to speak with various city counsellors and have mentioned how frustrating it can be to run an idea like a public bonfire, or a neighbourhood festival, up against city bureaucracy. Invariably, their response is “call me.”
For some reason, I had always assumed that City councillors had no time or interest for little grassroots initiatives. I assumed that things like bonfires or putting a band in the park, were considered subversive and that in order to do them, I had to slip under the radar, dissecting city bylaws to find the loopholes. Initiatives like the Dalhousie art space, and the initiative to get a level crossing between Mile-End and Petite-Patrie have helped change my perspective.
If I want to be propose a creative event or a change to the urban landscape, I need to start thinking of elected councillors as allies. On the other hand, when I want a cut and dry answer – when to put out the recycling; what the pool schedule is – I’ll 311 and speak with a bureaucrat. Sometimes they’re nice; sometimes they’re jerks; usually, the most they can do transfer you to the right department; often the bylaws themselves are wishy-washy and the boroughs have difficulty untangling their mandate from that of the central city’s.
Oh, and when I need to contact the City for an article or a blog post, I know that the City’s press secretary is the only one I’ll ever get an answer out of.