This series features highlights from the ongoing exhibit The Fourth Wall: Transforming City Hall. The exhibit, on now at the Urbanspace Gallery, considers possible avenues to break down the barriers to participation in civic life that exist at Toronto’s City Hall.
On Tuesday, I covered the city’s planning application notices and some ideas about how they could be improved to better engage the public in decision making. Let’s say you have an above average tolerance for poor design and your interest in a particular issue is piqued by one of these notices. A whole slew of barriers may still prevent you from making your voice heard.
Most public consultations at City Hall and our Civic Centres are held during the daytime. During the 9-5 hours, most individuals are working and unable to step out for a public meeting. Even if you are free, it’s tough to know when your particular issue will come up as the timing of each item is not announced. If you don’t have the luxury to wait around all day, it’s likely that you’ll miss your chance to speak. This leads to a bias in public comments as private companies can afford to have lobbyists wait all day, but residents usually cannot. In the past year, we’ve also seen the introduction of ‘24-hour meetings’ which discourage participation by forcing deputants to attend meetings into the night.
Last Minute Tricks
The City Clerk’s Toronto Meeting Management Information System website makes lots of meeting information, including agendas, accessible to the public, but there is little to stop Councillors from engaging in last minute tricks.
In the past year, we’ve seen Councillors introduce controversial items at the last minute, depriving both their colleagues and citizens of relevant information in advance. This is done intentionally to avoid scrutiny, debate and public feedback.
So you’ve managed to leave work, call a sitter and stay up into the wee hours for your chance to speak. Beware of shrinking deputation times. Over the past year, we’ve seen the time allotment for budget deputations shrink from 5 minutes, to 3, and then 2. Good thing you’ve had all day waiting around to practice!
If we want to boost participation in public meetings, we should explore accessibility options including evening meetings (6-9PM), timed items with clear schedules, on site childcare, refreshments, better promotion of meetings, and plain language materials including translations for Toronto’s diverse communities.
What would make it easier or more enticing for you to attend a public meeting? Have your ever been prevented from speaking because of scheduling or other accessibility issues?
The Fourth Wall: Transforming City Hall is on at the Urbanspace Gallery (401 Richmond St. W.) until the end of the year. The building is open weekdays, 7am to 7pm, and Saturdays, 9am to 6pm. Curated by Dave Meslin, Research by Hilary Best, Design by Adam Zinzan-Harris.
Image from The Grid