Canadian city councils are programmed to be weak. Unlike provincial legislatures or the House of Commons, city councils are not well-placed to write legislation that enables meaningful change, let alone implement it so that change actually takes place. Generally, the only way our city governments are capable of being seriously influential at all is if there is a strong mayor. In that sense, our cities, like banana republics, face a bleak choice between autocracy and a weak state.
The weakness of our local legislatures – because that is what city councils are – is the result of a long, complex and interesting history that we can look at another time. The purpose of this series of blogs is not to attempt the difficult task of explaining how our communities have been held to banana republic status, but only to offer some evidence that that is in fact their status. I’ll do this by providing case study evidence of how easy it is for land developers and municipal public servants to manipulate city councils and the public. The evidence is selected from a sizeable storehouse of research that I have assembled during many years of conducting interviews and poring over documents.
Some readers may wonder why I am offering an instruction manual in the ways and means of fooling city council when obviously I disapprove of the way our democratic representatives are led around by the nose. My answer is that the techniques I will document are not news to municipal public servants and land developers. Most of them probably do not even think of the techniques as manipulation, but simply consider them to be ordinary business practices.
In fact, it is not my intention to paint land developers and public servants as villains. They are only trying to do their jobs. As Shakespeare said,
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
In Canada, we live in a democracy, and we have consented to the governance of our cities and towns in a manner that makes fools of our representatives. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
I will continue this series of blogs with two examples of a tactic for the manipulation of city council that I have dubbed the bait and switch. My first example, from Edmonton, deals with the Eaton Centre, a case in which a land development company led city council around by the nose. In a later blog, I will set out how public servants made fools of Winnipeg’s city council, also through use of the bait and switch in the case of the Norwood Bridge. Finally, as time permits, I will look at the use of another tactic, intimidation, in the case of the Tegler Building in Edmonton.