Everybody knows?

Let's hope city hall can show us the deal isn't always rotten

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Back in the twilight of the Reagan era, Canada's favourite tone-deaf poet summed up the cynicism of the 1980s with an uplifting ode to the concept of Weltschmerz, or world-weariness.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/02/2012 (3871 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Back in the twilight of the Reagan era, Canada’s favourite tone-deaf poet summed up the cynicism of the 1980s with an uplifting ode to the concept of Weltschmerz, or world-weariness.

“Everybody knows the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed,” sang Leonard Cohen. “Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.”

Since the initial recording in 1988, Everybody Knows has been covered at least a dozen times, by artists as diverse as Eagles drummer Don Henley and Winnipeg folkies The Duhks.

Alik Keplicz / The Associated Press archives Leonard Cohen summed up the cynicism of his times in the song Everybody Knows. City hall has an opportunity to prove him wrong -- or right.

The popularity of the pessimistic tune endures because new generations of downtrodden shmos can take solace in the depressing notion their actions may never amount to anything. “The poor stay poor, the rich stay rich,” Cohen continued. “That’s how it goes.”

On this sunny Louis Riel long-weekend morning, I would argue Mr. Monotone had it wrong. For starters, the poor have grown more numerous and the rich have gotten wealthier since the late 1980s.

But on a genuinely more positive note, the dice aren’t always loaded. The problem is, many people are convinced they are.

Last week, the City of Winnipeg committed a bizarre public-relations blunder that seemed to confirm the worst fears of citizens who believe their municipal leaders are out to screw them.

On Tuesday, two dozen people arrived at city hall with the expectation of addressing a council committee about the proposed redevelopment of seven financially troubled golf courses. But they were sent home when the agenda item that would have allowed them to speak was scrapped from the proceedings.

This sort of thing is catnip for conspiracy theorists. It appeared to prove city hall doesn’t want to listen to the proverbial little guy, let alone act on what he or she has to say, when dollars are to be made selling off land.

Of course, the level of government that affects our lives the most demands our attention. And the system only works when we scrutinize decisions made at 510 Main St.

Upset with that stadium rising near your home? The new apartment building in your older neighbourhood? The conversion of a curb lane into a bicycle corridor? The restaurant patio opening around the corner? The expansion of a drug store chain outlet?

Email or call your councillor. Contact the mayor. Show up at a public meeting or a council subcommittee and speak your mind. Post comments online and call up radio stations. Express yourself in any manner you choose.

But do not, however, expect any decision to change merely because you got your point across. Our form of democracy does not work on the basis of the largest number of people speaking the loudest.

Rather, representative democracy is the process of electing people to make decisions on our behalf. That means in our place, not at our behest.

The only time we get an actual say in the direction of municipal government is once every four years, in late October. Elections are the only real form of public consultation provided by this system.

Hence the need to pay attention all the time.

Unfortunately, municipal politicians perpetuate the myth the public actually gets a say between elections. When they announce certain plans, they occasionally talk about “public consultation,” which implies a process of give-and-take interaction.

In reality, such interaction is rare. “Public notification” would be a more accurate term for announcements about city plans.

This does not mean there’s no such thing as real consultation in this town. Some long-term planning efforts, such as the Kenaston Boulevard widening that will involve the expropriation and demolition of dozens of homes, have been nothing less than agonizing for residents.

Similarly, real public consultation takes place when apartment or condo developers actually make an effort to meet with neighbours before they submit plans to the City of Winnipeg. Smart developers know they’re more likely to succeed if they can demonstrate they didn’t just contact people, but made a genuine effort to seek their input at the beginning of the process.

Politicians, however, don’t have to prove they’ve consulted the masses when they make decisions. The greatest municipal leaders simply do what they think is right and stand up to the inevitable criticism.

But great leaders must also accept responsibility for their own decisions, without deflecting blame to unelected officials ordered to carry out political aims.

Conversely, the worst leaders create impossible expectations when they purport to obey the public on every issue. Any government would be paralyzed by such a system, which wouldn’t even constitute democracy, but the proverbial tyranny of the majority.

So where does this leave our city? As St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal said at executive policy committee last week, Winnipeggers are already very cynical about the way the city handles land.

Moving forward on the golf-course file, Mayor Sam Katz ought to do what St. James Coun. Scott Fielding has already done — declare an intention to dispose of as many of the city’s troubled courses as would make economic and environmental sense for the City of Winnipeg.

Then he should detail the costs and benefits of the redevelopment proposals deemed promising by city officials. And when a decision is made, own it and defend it, if necessary.

Just don’t pretend to leave it up to the public. That will only make citizens more cynical.

“Everybody knows the deal is rotten,” sang Leonard Cohen.

Dear city hall: Please do your best to prove him wrong.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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