An open letter to the New Westminster city clerk and council regarding the public hearing on the Sixth Street housing proposal:
Residents are quick to complain when we think elected officials and city staff are doing something wrong, but we easily forget to thank you when you have done something right. So I want to take a moment to thank you for experimenting with a new process for our latest public hearing.
On May 31, I watched council and staff commit to and actively uphold democracy. You modelled how to lead and hold people accountable to respect. Thank you.
I was surprised when the public hearing session opened with a statement. "Council is committed to ensuring that all people who speak at this hearing are treated fairly and respectfully, and the language we use will reflect that."
The beautifully written statement went on to define discriminatory language and the best practices for comments. By re-reading the statement throughout the night, council confirmed the rules of engagement in a way that leaned into our shared democratic value of respect — and instructed speakers how to align their values with their statements.
I was thrilled when council acted to uphold their stated commitments. Just as the tone started to shift and speakers risked making disrespectful assumptions about those who disagreed with them, councillors interjected to remind us about respect. Then, I cheered when they intervened again to reify the line between fact and opinion.
It is one thing to name our values, it is another to defend the norms of our democracy actively. Thank you to the city clerks and staff who researched, supported and wrote the commitments. By creating the statement, you started a process for councillors to speak up and defend democratic norms of respect and fact-based commentary.
Overall, I think the public hearing is a flawed process. It changes no one's opinion. The format too easily creates an "us vs. them" dynamic that activates and strengthens toxic polarization. Sadly, the Local Government Act also mandates it.
As you know, Division 3, Section 465 of the Local Government Act says municipalities must give "all persons who believe that their interest in property is affected by the proposed bylaw" an opportunity "to be heard." It also says the chair "may establish procedural rules for the conduct of the hearing." I am proud to live in a city that saw the flaws in status quo procedures and experimented with improving them. Thank you for taking that risk. I believe it paid off.
I am sure you will hear harsh criticisms from residents who believe the execution of the commitment was flawed. I agree it was imperfect. At times, I wondered if comments had crossed the line. Later in the night, I felt staff and council missed opportunities when they let false assumptions and disrespectful criticism of strangers slide. But throughout the night, I also heard speakers be reflective and acknowledge harmful rhetoric themselves. Throughout the five-hour meeting, watching shared norms of behaviour be built and reproduced was energizing.
So much about our democracy is not written in legislation. Democracy is the culture, tone and behaviour we build by modelling good and naming the bad. I have faith all involved will learn from the experience and improve the practice in the future. You are our champions for democracy.
Thank you, city clerks, for doing the work that sets up our municipality to defend and strengthen democracy. Thank you council for being brave enough to try something new, put yourself out there, and call-in your constituents.
I brag about our city all the time. Today, thanks to you, I am even prouder to call New Westminster home and all its communities my neighbours.
Jennifer Wolowic, New Westminster