Flash mob or just a mob?

Tomorrow I’m participating in a flash mob at the Clock in Victoria Park. It’s encouraging people to vote. Flash mobs are great when they are about such non-controversial things as encouraging voting or singing Handel’s Messiah. But when a constituents’ meeting about a topic like Rapid Transit that attracts passionate people goes viral as it did a week ago, that’s a different story.

With every infrastructure project the region does, whether large or small, whether a stop sign, a bridge, a water treatment plant or Rapid Transit, we have public meetings out in the community. These meetings include staff meeting one on one with constituents. There are boards and sometimes videos with information about the project. Constituents are invited to record their comments and councillors receive all comments. Sometimes these public meetings take the form of brainstorming or workshops when the council is exploring various options. These meetings help people who are not confident public speakers to get their opinions heard.

A person can come as a delegation to council anytime an issue is on the agenda to make comment. We also, with contentious issues like smoking or rapid transit, put aside whole evenings where constituents can come and speak at a microphone as a delegation. At these meetings, staff will first present a report (it helps delegations to have this first as then they can respond to it when they speak if there is new information) then people will speak. Even someone who hasn’t signed up beforehand can speak if they wish. No decisions are made at these public input meetings. Councillors just listen.

Sometimes a project effects a particular neighbourhood with a particular concern. For example, myself and other councillors met with people living near the corner of Westmount and Bearinger when the road was being realigned to discuss a road that would be partially closed and a potential parking lot.

A few weeks ago, the residents of the townhouses along Caroline asked for a meeting with councillors about the proposal that Rapid Transit (whether bus or train) will be going by very close to their homes. It was not a meeting about whether or not to have Light Rail or Bus or just Ixpress, it was about the alignment. Unfortunately, the meeting date went viral, a flash mob if your will, and people for and against various rapid transit proposals were going to come. The meeting was billed by some as an anti-LRT rally.

I did not attend the pro-LRT rally and I will not attend the anti-LRT rally if it is held. The neighbourhood meeting was cancelled and will be rescheduled in May.

Why? Mayor Brenda had a concern for the seniors at the Adult Recreation Centre. Though I was under the impression the meeting was at a room in City Hall. Anyway, those of us who are experienced councillors have been at meetings where the “mob” mentality prevailed and I, for one, was concerned this would happen at this meeting. I’m not hearing my constituents when the mob takes over.

What does it mean when a mob mentality takes over?

It means that the neighbours with a specific problem would likely be drowned out by the anti and pro sides of the overall issue.

More to the point, when a meeting becomes huge like this, there are not the controls on it that there would be if it was held formally in a council chamber. So what,you say. So, dangerous and unproductive, I say.

If a meeting is not run with distinct rules that have been created over the years to stop riots, you can end up with . . . a riot. A generally peaceful region, we forget how fast things can change in a charged atmosphere.

I’m sure no one was going to the meeting to start a fight but there is a lot of anger and passion on both sides of the rapid transit issue. I have been at meetings on other hot issues where people yell out and yell at people trying to speak. I have been drowned out when I tried to speak. Booing, jeering and wild clapping.  Swearing. People can get out of control and we don’t want meetings to end up in fisticuffs. I have been at a meeting where I didn’t leave alone, afraid I would be attacked. Seriously. Fortunately,that was only one meeting of many. But some times I’ve seen a badly run or loose meeting become dominated by one side or the other or end in chaos.

That is why on May 31 and June 1, from 6 pm on, people should come to Regional Council chambers at 150 Frederick St and have their say. You can sign up beforehand and get 10 minutes.

This meeting is run by a chair, probably Jim Wideman, chair of Planning and Works. People in the audience are not allowed to boo, jeer or clap and no waving of signs. No calling out from the audience.This is so people of an opposing view who may be speaking for the first time can have their say without harassment. It also reduces the tense  atmosphere so fights won’t break out. And it enables everyone to hear the speakers.

You can also e-mail me and I will read your mail and pass on your comments to staff so you can be counted in the public record.

In this way, we can all be passionate, but  also conduct ourselves in a way that all can be heard.

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