Originally sent to the Merc.
The recent disputes over the Wilson Park farmhouse highlight the need for better public processes in Guelph. Overall there has been a failure to hold open and democratic processes and instead closed and biased processes have been allowed to stand in for public opinion. Open public hearings are a necessary step when potentially contentious land use decisions are contemplated. Public hearings are a useful tool because they allow differing views equal access and allow a dialogue to occur, which in the best case, will lead to a public agreement on a way forward. Public forums are thus neutral in a way that special interest polling or biased meetings cannot be.
The lack of a public process leads to self-appointed special interest groups popping up claiming to represent public opinion. It appears that the only process surrounding the planning for the Wilson farmhouse was a door to door poll by a citizen’s group that was explicitly opposed to retaining the farmhouse. Although perfectly legitimate, this process was neither neutral nor open. A neutral process is not biased towards a particular outcome. An open process allows for alternate viewpoints to be expressed and for a dialogue to occur.
Another case where an open public forum would have been helpful is the proposed development on The Woods site on Arthur Street South in the Ward. Although two public meetings were held, both were sponsored by the developer and managed by them, so again there was a lack of neutrality. The developer can’t be faulted for spending time and money holding meeting to promote their vision for the site, but these sponsored meetings were formatted as a presentation. The format did not allow for an open dialogue to occur so it was not a substitute for a forum where alternate views could have been considered and a dialogue to take place.
Whatever the outcome of land use decisions, some people will not be happy with the result, but if people at least feel that they have been heard and that the meetings have resulted in some kind of consensus, they will be less likely to be totally dissatisfied with the decision once it has been taken.
As representatives of the citizens, city councillors should ensure that open public meetings that allow for dialogue and the free exchange of ideas are held when potentially contentious land use decisions are contemplated. Citizens should demand this of their elected representatives, or organize their own. SF