Access to Information & ‘Open Government’

Continuing on the theme of ‘Open Spaces’, CBRM should use the web and social media to deliver more open, transparent and engaging government. As part of a broader communications strategy, this might include:

  • crowd-sourcing input at key decision-making times, such as budget approval, in order to better identify community priorities;
  • cataloguing and showcasing the community’s assets — from recreation and infrastructure, to events and important dates, to wifi hotspots and bike lanes;
  • monitoring operating costs in municipal buildings and fleets, and tracking reduction efforts such as electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions;
  • automating the system for identifying, prioritizing, and handling infrastructure improvements, such as roads, sewers, sidewalks;
  • and improving access to information, especially that which is readily digitized and made searchable, such as transit schedules or government contracts.

Canadian municipalities, both small and large, are adopting the Open Data concept1 — which equates access to information with good governance. The result is that government is more accountable, and citizens are empowered to come up with creative uses for the data.

1 How Canada became an open data and data journalism powerhouse

Sustainable Transportation & ‘Open Streets’

I’m attending a 2-day workshop in Halifax to support the development of the forthcoming “Provincial Sustainable Transportation Strategy”.

Municipalities across North America are coping with rapid economic, cultural and technological change. Those that are successful are the ones that treat these changes as opportunities for revitalization. Many cities and towns start in their downtown core, by creating more welcoming, vibrant, and inclusive public spaces.

As a web designer, I create “virtual open spaces” where people can come together and organize for social change. And in my volunteer work, I’m drawn to opportunities to create physical open spaces where people can share in, and co-create, the life of the community. I hope to bring my passion for ‘open spaces’ to municipal politics.

This might include, for example, transforming downtown Sydney (one day a year, or even one day a month) into a pedestrian-friendly centre of activity — by diverting motorized vehicles from Charlotte Street, and opening it up for people to walk, roll, stroll, play, shop and eat.

By encouraging shopkeepers and restaurateurs to have a presence on the sidewalk, and filling the streets with a diversity of activity (art, live music, community theatre, bicycle maintenance workshops, skateboard demonstrations, outdoor exercise classes, kids activities), organizers would create a ‘street scape’ that integrates active transportation, shopping, food, arts, and socializing.

Creating a walkable downtown core — connecting downtown Charlotte Street, North End Heritage Conservation District, Sydney boardwalk, Wentworth Park, Membertou and the GreenLink trail system — would promote density, diversity, and discovery and give tourists the integrated small-town experience they expect, while giving locals plenty of ways to connect (or re-connect) with their community.

To be continued…

Blue Moon Haiku

Blue moon: your own twin?

Ask the sea: the tide answers,

Mike: for district 5

Who Owns Sydney’s Port?

The Cape Breton Post’s assessment of yesterday’s events (“Greenfield Gold”) doesn’t say much for its opinion of this community. CBRM council voted 17-0 to put in an offer on the Greenfield site. The Post believes this unanimous decision was the result of council’s impressionability, as if they were simply charmed by Rankin MacSween.

When in fact, as reported by CBC, councillors based their decision on the volume of phone calls and emails they received from constituents following Tuesday’s council meeting. Council’s decision was the direct result of a community acting together to achieve a common goal. This was neither a coup by council nor by MacSween; it was a win for the community, by the community.

And what exactly was it that the community won? Again, the Post misses the point. This was not the triumph of a container terminal over a coal field, or the triumph of councillors over a consortium. The decision to purchase the greenfield site shouldn’t be seen as an investment in whatever future development takes place there, container terminal or otherwise. Rather, it should be understood as a securing of this community’s right to determine its own future. It’s not about what gets built on the site; it’s about who decides. And ultimately about who benefits.

The Post would prefer we “let the chips fall where they may”, as if the rights of every Henry Melville Whitney should always and everywhere trump the long-term interests of a community. Indeed the editorial seemed quite concerned with the message yesterday’s decision sends to the private sector. But what message does this send to members of this community, who spoke out in favour of shared ownership of a vital community asset, and had their elected representatives listen? This was truly a triumph for democracy.

It’s too bad the Post editorial missed all this, with its simplistic reduction of a complex issue, and its shameful dismissal not only of this community’s leaders but of the multitude who supported them.

What we witnessed was a community realizing its power, and demanding its right, to determine its future. It was an act of courage. It came from a place of hope. And it displayed a profound commitment to each other and to this island. May this letter serve as a corrective: We noticed. And we celebrated.

#CBRM #thisisyourcommunity

The Cape Breton Post’s editorial cartoon by Sean Casey of Cape Breton Ink is brilliant because it lends itself to interpretation.

I hope that when people see this cartoon they see beyond the hipster facial hair, piercings, sneakers and slang and notice what the t-shirt says, because the character with the “creative alternatives” is not a composite of a couple of punk kids with too much idealism and too little common sense. It is a composite of all Cape Bretoners young and old who worry about the future, feel helpless at times, and are looking for a way to join in a collective, collaborative effort to rebuild (an effort that is underway).

The “creative alternatives” we refer to are not meant to supplant, but to supplement, an equalization fairness campaign: to consider other means of achieving prosperity in addition to equalization; and to consider other means of pursuing equalization fairness itself.

For me, the real meaning of this cartoon lies in the question it poses: namely, what happens next? Will we have a mayor who engages more of the community? Or will we have a mayor who continues to “cast himself as a lonely but heroic crusader“? In which case, the cartoon may not be portraying Mayor Morgan as using the lawsuit “sword” to fight off the beast of economic ruin, in fact he may not even be using it to fight the beast at all. He may be feeding it.

**

What’s this about? See here, here and here

Toward Collaborative Local Politics

Published in The Cape Breton Post comment section (print only) on Monday, March 5, 2012

CBRM Mayor John Morgan should seek input from the community on a more regular basis, and with a deeper commitment to giving that input its full due. He should help open the municipal government’s policy development and review processes to make them more participatory, transparent, and above all, inclusive. And he should re-imagine a social role for municipal government.

This was the message a small group of us delivered to Mayor Morgan last week. The meeting was a follow-up to Donnie Calabrese’s “Open Letter”, published first on Facebook and then in the Post. In it, Donnie challenged the Mayor to think outside the equalization box and look to the community for creative alternatives. But the real challenge now falls on us, to bring those creative alternatives forward and put them to the test. So while we’re expecting a lot from the Mayor and his office, we’re also expecting a lot of ourselves — that we will assume more responsibility for co-creating our communities and local economies.

In order for this new conversation to unfold, there must be an open channel of dialogue between the Mayor’s office and the various constituencies that feel they are not being listened to, let alone spoken to. Only then can we work together to achieve our common goal of creating a vibrant community that offers a viable choice to both newcomers and home-grown folks alike.

During the meeting (which included myself, Donnie, and Erika Shea), we acknowledged the cogency of Mayor Morgan’s argument with respect to equalization. But all parties were able to agree that, while equalization fairness is perhaps necessary, it is not sufficient. We therefore can’t afford to pursue it at the exclusion of immigration and diversity, arts and culture, student life and youth engagement, environmental sustainability, and the nurturing of a business climate more conducive to small- and medium-size enterprise.

Judging from some of the responses to Donnie’s letter, the Mayor is not the only one with a blind-spot when it comes to small and varied locally-based initiatives. Many still buy into the false choice between rescue from government and rescue from big industry. Curiously, this dual rescue package is seen as the only hope by both doom and gloom pessimists and “turned the corner” optimists alike. But both offer false hope.

We need evidence-based analysis from our best and brightest, which our Mayor is. But it must be combined with innovative and practical solutions, which the equalization legal battle is not.

Instead we need our leaders to be inspired by a constructive alternative vision, like the kind Fr Jimmy Tompkins and Fr Moses Coady sought to establish during the Antigonish Movement. Leadership is tricky now just as it was then. What does it mean in a 21st-century hyperconnected world, and in a collaborative setting like the one alluded to above? And how can it help people in Cape Breton achieve Coady’s vision of becoming, as he titled his book, ‘Masters of Their Own Destiny’?

Whatever shape it takes, collaborative community-based leadership requires of us that we educate ourselves and organize ourselves. A well known example of the Antigonish Movement’s effort to educate and organize was the People’s School, established in 1921 at St Francis Xavier University. Its goals were, I believe, ones we can identify with today, almost a hundred years later:

  • to deal pragmatically and head-on with the challenges facing Cape Breton;
  • to liberate, and put to good use, the creative energies of the people; and
  • to inspire them to work together for their common good.

This is not an argument for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. CBRM, like every municipality in Canada, has three levels of government, all of which must work together to achieve sustainable prosperity. But an engagement with government at the local level is perhaps the best way of ensuring that the community leads in determining its future.

So roll up your sleeves. There’s a new conversation to be had.

Message to CBRM

Everyone who brought a reusable mug to the vigil on Saturday had their name entered in a draw for Al Gore’s new book, Our Choice. The winner asked that the prize be donated to a good cause. On behalf of the vigil organizers and everyone who attended, the book has been sent to CBRM council with the following message:

A report released by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that ”municipalities have the potential to supply between 20 and 55 Megatonnes of emission reductions, equivalent to 15 to 40 per cent of Canada’s 2020 emission reduction target [of 20% below 2006 levels].”

The report calls for “a strategic approach, led and in part funded by the Government of Canada.”The benefit to the federal government is that local, community-based greenhouse gas emissions reduction initiatives – such as improving public transit, shifting to more fuel-efficient fleets, retrofitting public buildings and turning landfill gas into energy – are an especially cost-effective way to cut emissions.

The benefit to municipalities is job creation, community economic development and increased competitiveness; and energy efficiency measures can lead to lower overall municipal operating costs.

Municipalities are key to achieving large and low-cost emission reductions, in partnership with federal and provincial/territorial. Not only do Municipal governments have direct or indirect control over approximately 44 per cent of GHG emissions in Canada, but “Municipal governments are also the order of government that is the closest to citizens and can most easily engage households and businesses to implement local projects to reduce GHG emissions. Municipal governments can affect GHG emissions as a regulator, facilitator, partner, program deliverer and educator.”

Full report: Act Locally – The Municipal Role in Fighting Climate Change [pdf]

Climate Vigil in Sydney a success

Approximately 60 people braved sub-freezing temperatures, gusting winds and blowing snow to attend the climate vigil in Sydney this past Saturday. They joined people across the country and throughout the world to show support for a binding emissions reduction agreement in Copenhagen.

The gathering took place at the Wentwork Park bandshell. The acoustic amplifier helped carry the sound of Mi’kmaq drummers – performing traditional songs about the need to respect the earth – out into the street and beyond.

Brief but powerful speeches described the effects of climate change on Inuit in Canada’s Arctic, coastal residents of low-lying Bangladesh, and Cape Bretoners themselves – highlighting the need for an international solution to a global problem.Closing out the event was a call for leadership at all levels of government, as well as practical suggestions for each of us to reduce our ecological footprint.Only a few candles beat the wind, but the message was clear: change is possible.