Two more years of this?

City Hall by Joanna St. Jacques
Photo by Joanna St. Jacques

Again, Hamilton’s civic political culture is at a crossroads – and again we’re posed to choose none of the roads leading away from our current point; preferring instead to take the bumpiest road to the nearest cliff.

We’ve seen it before with the stadium debate, area-rating (which took over a decade to solve), ward boundaries, and we are on the verge of doing so with the casino debate.

History doesn’t have to repeat itself entirely.

The casino debate witnessed what I believe to be the greatest moment of civic engagement to ever occur in City Hall – the casino town halls (or in City Hall-speak “information session”).

We can take the lessons learned from them to clasp some victory out of the defeat that has become of this debate for both sides.

Council’s 2014 election focus

Hamilton City Council is in election mode, which means most major difficult decisions will be put off past the October 2014 municipal vote.

The casino issue is the second major item to be punted past 2014, with Ward Boundary Review being the first.

Council reached a “compromise motion” last week that instructs OLG to only take bids for the Flamborough location.

If, (when), Flamborough is declared an non-viable location, then Council will consider all other locations. This is expected to occur in March 2015.

Two more years of this venomous bickering?

The past five days have shown what we can expect of the next two years, needless bitter fighting among factions in preparation for the inevitable 2015 downtown casino debate.

This past week, we witnessed an engaged citizen telling a former mayor to “go %$#% himself”, a current city councillor accuse opponents of acting like communists, and a lot of pointless bickering instead of conversation or productive debate.

Now, we have an integrity commissioner complaint against a no-side city councillor, Ward Two Councillor Jason Farr, for allegedly misrepresenting the position of Global Spectrum/Live Nation.

Even Councillor Terry Whitehead, the leading voice on Council of the Yes-Downtown-Casino side is publicly stating this integrity complaint is frivolous.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring, we can be fairly sure it won’t be good.

It’s not just the usual suspect locations such as Twitter that this conversation has degraded into a farcical exchange of insults, just look at this Reddit thread.

That’s just the discussion.

What about downtown?

People in Council Chambers by Joanna St. Jacques
Photo by Joanna St. Jacques

What about our downtown? What does the stagnation of the casino debate mean for it?

I don’t know the answer, my fear is the uncertainty will discourage some investment and growth.

I don’t know anyone, and there could be people, who want to live across from a casino. (Same can be said about Copps Coliseum)

Until we know if there will be a downtown casino, and where it may be, do are we taking the risk of discouraging condo development or intensification?

On the flip side, what about the private investors who believe they can benefit from a casino?

Numerous downtown restaurants that are pro-casino with the RockHammer group planning to provide restaurant vouchers as part of its loyalty program and to design the casino entertainment complex to be open to the street.

Does the stagnation of this debate, and uncertainty about the future of our core, lead to decreased investment downtown?

Does it discourage people from moving downtown – both those seeking and avoiding a casino?

Much like if there will be a downtown casino, we just don’t know the answers.

Yet, the Casino Debate produced the best debate in living memory

It doesn’t have to be this way. We held two casino town halls in Hamilton, both of which were very informative, respectful, and insightful.

For a fleeting moment, it appeared that Hamilton had finally arrived on the verge of two-way dialogue and the City sought to engage citizens as equals. Maybe that moment was a watershed and the venomous comments of the best week are merely the last gasp of incivility?

Both sides had an opportunity to be heard, those who had not already formed a firm opinion heard from experts on both sides of the issue, and everyone left the night feeling they had an opportunity to meaningfully engage with their civic government.

Can we engage again

Can we do another successful series of town halls? I say yes.

There are so many topics that need to be covered in our city. I’m going to suggest one as both timely and with strong arguments on both sides: two-way vs. one-way streets.

Let’s put together an expert panel on both sides of the issue, hold another town hall, and improve upon the new interactive formats we used during the casino debate to make civic engagement a regular part of our city hall culture.

Onward to 2014

Mayor Bratina at first Council meeting of current termWith election 2014 underway, it’s time to raise above the rhetoric we’ve seen on the casino and ask the big question:

What is the vision for Hamilton and how do we achieve it?

I say be better civic engagement leading to a better informed citizenry that ultimately produces a 2014 election based upon issues and not polarized by a singular focus on the casino debate.

What do you think, what is the big question that we need to answer in #HamOnt?

Two more years of this?