When rabble rule

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 23, 2005

‘She wanted to say something but she was afraid her house might get torched,” one neighbour told me, referring to a friend who was afraid to speak up at a neighborhood meeting over a proposed addition to a local private school.

“It was a lynching,” another neighbour explained when I asked him why he didn’t ask the question he had gone to the meeting to ask. “Who wants to subject himself to that?”

“It was a mob,” said a third neighbour: A fourth expressed guilt for not having the courage to speak up in defence of the school, a boys’ choir school called Royal St. George’s College. A fifth characterized the private school’s venomous beraters as “a rabble of fools.” A sixth, after seeing the column I wrote (Schoolyard Bullies, April 2) criticizing the behaviour of the school’s opponents, feared that my young daughters would be bullied.

Welcome to neighbourhood democracy in Toronto’s Annex, one of Canada’s most “progressive” communities, home to academics and professionals, hotbed of grassroots activism, and exemplar of the evil of misplaced “public participation.” As the saga surrounding this school’s quest to upgrade its property shows, public participation all too often is neither about participation nor for the public. Instead, public participation can be code for stripping the majority in a neighbourhood of say in favour of giving it to those who are most shrill.

Toronto City Council runs a political jurisdiction with a GDP larger than most provinces. One of the jobs that this city council performs is to micro-manage the uses to which hundreds of thousands of property owners put their property: in this case, whether a relatively small non-profit neighbourhood school should be allowed to use part of its parking lot to build a gymnasium for its 425 students.

Because it would be absurd for big city legislators with big city responsibilities to spend any time at all on so trivial and local a decision, they don’t. Instead city council effectively delegates such decisions to local councillors and generally rubber stamps their decisions – under an informal arrangement, councillors have carved up the city into personal fiefdoms, with a quiet understanding that they won’t interfere in each other’s turf.

But the local elected councillors generally don’t want any part of trivial disputes either, particularly those with potential to cost them votes, so they hand off the problem to unelected “community working groups,” typically those most vociferous. In the case of Royal St. George’s, the vociferous group is called Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park, or NOSAP, which became the quasi-official representatives of a neighbourhood by fiat. Neighbourhood democracy, in effect, amounts to giving an unelected minority outsized rights to shape a local development process.

To further “public participation” on this subject, the city then told Royal St. George’s to refrain from communicating with the public on its expansion plans, except through the unelected working group. One result: The school could not present its various plans to the larger public for its feedback. Another result: NOSAP was free to distort the plans that the school did have with wild abandon, and did. In a remarkable display of disingenuousness, NOSAP – not liking the school’s designs – asked the school to produce a different design, inconsistent with the neighbourhood’s character, to see how it might look. The school accommodated the request. NOSAP then circulated the design it had requested throughout the neighbourhood, as evidence of what the school had planned. For good measure, NOSAP digitally doctored the design that it circulated, making it less palatable still. The school, meanwhile, felt honour-bound to follow the city’s gag request throughout, a period of nine months, all in the name of promoting public participation.

After I wrote my expose of NOSAP’s tactics three weeks ago, a NOSAP leader wrote me a belligerent note accusing me of making grave accusations and of acting dishonestly. I agreed to provide the lengthy answers she demanded on condition that I make her letter public, along with my response. True to form, this champion of public participation refused my request, and threatened to take me to the Ontario Press Council. Not that she will. My accusations are indeed grave, and they are verifiable.

If public participation is needed, those chosen to represent a neighbourhood should not be the extremists, merely because their adrenalin-flow exceeds that of others. That guarantees results unrepresentative of the neighbourhood as a whole. Better to select a jury from the neighbourhood at random, or by neighbourhood plebiscites – mechanisms less likely to lead to a lynching.

No property owner – whether a school, business, or individual – should be able to harm a neighbour’s property or to interfere with his use or enjoyment of it. Likewise, no property owner should be able to exceed noise restrictions or otherwise flout the traditional common law that societies have developed over time in regulating themselves. But, barring such harms to neighbours, why should either the city or the neighbourhood as a whole be involved in details deciding (as is the case here) how much of a parking lot can be built on? Why should a school in the public system get preference over a non-profit private school (the city gives fewer rights to private academic institutions)? Why should anyone but the school decide on the size of its proposed student drama studio or the colour of brick that its architect selects? We meddle too much and we tolerate too little. And, as a result, we get too many bullies who do too much violence to the neighbourhood.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute; www.urban.probeinternational.org


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