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Martha Muzychka: Come on councillors, walk the walk


By now, I expect, readers in St. John’s have recovered from the shock of last week’s municipal election results.

Martha Muzychka

We have a record number of women and young people, and a remarkably diverse set of life experiences represented across the board. We have some returning councillors to round out the team, and by all accounts, people are pleased with the changes.

It was an interesting campaign, and I’ve been thinking about what this means for the city as a whole. My first thought is that we now have, for us, the most diverse council ever.

We could do better on the immigrant and disability fronts, but the new council offers the opportunity to look outside the bubble it’s been in for the last few decades. It’s a good mix of perspectives and one a long time coming.

Why does this matter? Well, if you only talk and listen to people who look like you, share the same life experiences, education, work and social backgrounds, it is difficult to be open to other points of view, other experiences and other ideas.

People get into ruts because they are comfortable places to be. You can carry on and not let anything really interfere with your worldview. But this lack of diversity limits your ability to make good decisions, as you are more likely to rely on the ideas and suggestions of the others sharing that same comfy space.

The fact that we have such interesting and diverse experiences around the council table means they won’t be tempted to rely on the same old response.

In the days after the election, one commenter noted how good it is to have a balance of old and new so that the returning councillors could show the newbies how it’s done. More than one person noted that perhaps the newbies had something to show the veterans, and I certainly hope so.

The second thing that I saw, especially with the campaigns carried out by Maggie Burton, Ian Froude and Hope Jamieson, was not just how many doors they knocked upon, but how many times they talked about what they heard from those they met.

It gave us a chance to hear what others were saying, and while, yes, it was filtered through the lenses of those running, it was still refreshing to hear ideas and opinions not regurgitated from survey questions that looked for black-and-white answers instead of ones limned with the nuances necessary for thoughtful debate.

So here’s a thought: rather than put away that insightful and useful strategy until the next election comes around, how about councillors take the time to walk the neighbourhoods in their wards on a yearly basis?

This isn’t to say the engagement approaches council has undertaken in the last five years have not been useful, but they really rely on those who have the interest and the comfort to offer feedback online. I also know a number of people who would rather watch C-Span than go to a public meeting and endure grandstanding speeches, one after the other.

After hearing the quality of what people said during the election, even concepts I didn’t really agree with, I think we need to look at different ways of engaging with the citizenry. Having individual conversations and perhaps growing them into neighbourhood or ward discussions would build more meaningful connections than any number of app-driven surveys.

Over the past two years, there’s been a fair bit of talk about city policies and practices, and the lack of concern in some quarters for transparency, accountability and evidence in its decisions. I think, for some of the non-returning councillors, it would be worth spending some time, as the nuns said in my grade school, reflecting on why that frustration and anger escaped their notice.

In the meantime, I wish the new council well. The people have spoken, even if it was only 53 per cent of registered voters, and the message is clear. Ignore it at your peril.

 

Martha Muzychka is a happy resident of St. John’s who believes she is entitled to comment because she has voted in every possible election since she was 18. Email socialnotes@gmail.com

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