In the aftermath of June’s long public hearing into the women’s modular housing project in Queensborough, people were speaking out about how changes were needed by New Westminster city council in how people interacted with it.
Apparently some who came to support the project changed their minds because they felt intimidated by members of the audience.
I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened, and this column isn’t about that night. Frankly, from what I’ve seen and from what reporter Theresa McManus has told me, New West council is one of the friendlier groups of politicians out there. I attended one of Mayor Jonathan Cote’s affordable housing events, and it was about as user-friendly a civic event as I’d ever seen.
What the comments about the public hearing did bring up is an issue I’ve thought about ever since I started covering public meetings waaaaaaaay back in 1989.
It’s about how many politicians forget just how intimidating it is for a citizen to approach their government representatives in the public realm.
So many times I’ve watched as nervous citizens walk up to the microphone and face stone-faced politicians who look about as welcoming as my daughter does when I ask if I can come into her bedroom to talk about her boyfriend.
I’ve seen people’s hands shake as they hold a piece of paper with their notes. Public speaking is rough at the best of times, but when you’re pleading with municipal politicians to not pave over farmland or begging them to approve a new recreation proposal, it’s that much tougher. Council members are usually seated in a half-circle behind microphones – often with the mayor sitting higher than everyone. I’m told that New West actually redesigned the council chambers so the mayor and councillors sit at the same level as the public.
It’s symbolic, but it’s a good kind of symbolic.
An intimidating atmosphere is one reason why some people avoid approaching councils.
I’ve rarely ever seen a politician extend a courtesy smile or words of encouragement for nervous-looking speakers. It’s probably because they don’t want to come across as being biased, although I’m sure some like that sense of control.
My heart sometimes breaks for the people struggling to express themselves.
I wish more could be done to make these events more welcoming. I joked on Twitter that each speaker should get to pick their own entrance music. Who wouldn’t get pumped up listening to their favourite jam as they walked up to the microphone?
It’ll never happen, but something needs to be done to produce the kind of atmosphere in which citizens feel freer to take part in the democratic process.
Follow Chris Campbell @shinebox44.