Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 5: Will Bigger Be Better?

It looks like Greater Sudbury’s Auditor-General is seriously considering throwing his hat in the ring to become the City’s next Mayor. Clearly, if Brian Bigger does ultimately decide to run for the Mayor’s Chair, his entry into the race is going to shake things up. How this might unfold isn’t apparent – but it’s not going to stop me from speculating!

Tomorrow, our Council will decide whether to authorize Mr. Bigger’s request for a leave of absence from his municipally-contracted position in order to pursue his political ambitions. I can’t imagine that the City will decline Mr. Bigger his request, as the optics will be – to say the least – detrimental to every single incumbent on Council who is seeking to be re-elected. With this in mind, Bigger could be in the race as early as Friday – but likely he’ll take some time to wrap things up at the office, and enjoy a bit of a break before he finds himself immersed in the heat of an election. Of course, his name will be on the tips of everyone’s tongues between now and his formal nomination anyway, as the public and media plays the “will he or won’t he” game. Bigger’s got nothing to lose by taking his time.

Who is Brian Bigger?

What will Bigger stand for, and on what will he ultimately decide to campaign? Although it’s quite likely that most Greater Sudburians will have a positive reaction to his entry into the race, that initial reaction could quickly be tempered by what he makes public regarding election priorities. A safer route for Bigger will be to say as little as possible during the election campaign – and run instead on his name recognition and his accomplishments as A-G. But I suspect that Mr. Bigger would find that political course a little unpalatable. After all, he’s already cited one of his reasons for thinking of running for Mayor as being his desire to say things to the public that he can’t to Council. A campaign strategy in which Bigger keeps his mouth closed on the issues may be a safer course for him as a politician, but problematic for him as an individual.

So if Bigger does start to talk about the issues, what will be the important issues for him? And how might those issues contrast to the other candidates? While we’ve seen very little from any of the current candidates for mayor, notably save Jeff Huska, and to a lesser degree Dan Melanson, we probably have a pretty good idea of what former Mayor John Rodriguez and Ward 5 Councillor Ron Dupuis might prioritize. We can probably surmise that with his training as an accountant, and given his current position as Auditor-General, Bigger may be focused on bottom-line issues. But I think that making that assumption is a mistake.

Mayor as Leader

It’s one thing to be an Auditor – quite another to be a Mayor. Counting beans, while important, isn’t the only important aspect of being a Mayor – a leader on Council. To demonstrate his leadership abilities, Bigger is going to have to aim a little higher than the bottom line. Can he do it? Probably – almost certainly if whomever is backing him is serious about Bigger’s ultimate success. But at present, Bigger’s ability to lead may be the most significant hurdle for him to overcome in a field of candidates with demonstrated (and quite different) leadership abilities.

Take former Mayor John Rodriguez. Whatever your personal feelings about Rodriguez, there’s little questioning his leadership abilities after his years of representing voters at various levels of government. That he didn’t always succeed (to say the least) does not repudiate Rodriguez’s years of public service, nor his tireless championing of our communities.

And on the other hand, there’s Dan Melanson, who worked with a small team to accomplish a truly important triumph during the last election: the election of a relatively unknown Marianne Matichuk to the Mayor’s chair. Call it what you will, Matichuk’s campaign was one which Melanson and his team should be writing books about. Further, the continued campaigning that Melanson has been engaging in since the end of the 2010 election, through an organization that he created and led, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association, is a clear demonstration of his leadership tenacity, no matter how one might personally feel about it.

Does Bigger possess any of these leadership qualities? Can he be a champion for all of Greater Sudbury’s communities? Can he be a builder, as well as a cagey campaigner? Right now, we just don’t know.

Reacting to Bigger

What we suspect, though, is that the other candidates are going to have to figure out a way to react to Bigger’s entry into the race. Who has the most to lose? On the surface, it might appear to be Dan Melanson, whose small government mantra many expect Bigger the bean counter to adopt. But if Bigger does come out swinging about the ledger, starts talking sensibly about the issues and leadership, the Rodriguez and Dupuis, too, might find their campaigns at risk.

Make no mistake, Bigger in the race is going to suck up a lot of the media oxygen – and that’s a substance which is extremely important to one’s political survival. The media has a very difficult time focusing on an election narrative involving more than two candidates – three really is a maximum number for the media (as a Green Party member, have some confidence in me when I say that). Remember what happened to Ted Callaghan in 2010’s Mayoral race? With this in mind, which candidate might find themselves bumped by Bigger?

I don’t think that it’s going to be Melanson – his run for the Mayor’s chair is an interesting story from the media’s perspective, and as a demonstrated shrewd campaigner, I just can’t foresee that he won’t have developed a strategy of some sort to offset Bigger’s entry. No, Melanson will continue to get the coverage – just perhaps less of it than he might like. I’m sure that Melanson was content to have this election be all about him, but if Bigger joins the race, it won’t be.

That leaves John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis. Who gets left behind may have a lot to do with the strengths of their individual campaigns which, up until now, haven’t appeared to be all that strong. Rodriguez probably has the edge here over Dupuis, given Rodriguez’s past experience as Mayor. Frankly, “former Mayor challenges for his old job back” is a more compelling story than “Long serving Councillor wants to be Mayor”. And that’s why I think that Ron Dupuis’ campaign might ultimately be the one most at risk from Bigger’s entry.

Mayor's Race Drop-Outs

Dupuis already has a lot of challenges to overcome in order to be successful in his bid for Mayor. Will his backers, whomever they are, move to Bigger – a better bet for winning? In politics, this happens a lot – and with our very long municipal election campaigns here in Ontario, these shifts aren’t unusual at all. Dupuis and his team would do well to reconsider whether his pursuit of the Mayor’s chair is worth the risk of being bumped from Council all together. A much safer bet for Dupuis would be to run again in Ward 5.

Melanson, too, could drop out of the race for Mayor, and focus instead on running for a Council seat, even though a small budget campaign likely wouldn’t be his first choice of ways to sell himself to the public. Melanson surely wants to outspend his opponents – advertising, after all, is often the key to success in politics. A small-budget ward campaign is a great leveller for candidates – but those who already have name recognition – even negative name recognition – start from a position of influence. Melanson could probably win a seat in the on Council to represent the ward in which he lives, and eventually run for Mayor at some time in the future.

Rodriguez doesn’t really have the same set of choices. He was Mayor once, and he wants to be Mayor again. Rodriguez is either in or out. Given that he’s had the courage to throw his name in the ring again, I’m don’t expect him to drop out now just because Bigger has entered the field. John has to know that he faces challenges in winning voters, with or without Bigger – and he seems to think that he can do it.

Without a doubt, though, Bigger’s entry into the Mayor’s race will sideline hopefuls Huska and Richard Majkot even more than they’ve already been sidelined. Both candidates might want to think about shifting their sights off of the Mayor’s chair anyway, and play a safer game of running for a ward seat. Huska, particularly, could be an asset to our community on Council. He must realize that he’s not going to get the press – or the votes – needed to make that a reality should he continue to pursue the Mayor’s chair. Bigger’s entry into the race could be a golden opportunity for Huska to bow out, throw his support to Bigger, and instead run in a ward race (although those ward races in the inner city are starting to get a little crowded – Ward 1 might be the best place for Huska to shift his campaign to, but if he does so, he’ll be taking on a very progressive challenger in Matt Alexander, who will be a formidable challenger for that seat).

Bigger Impacts

All in all, it remains unclear at this time whether Bigger will be better for Greater Sudbury in the race for Mayor or not. Greater Sudburians do seem excited about the prospect of Bigger making a run – and without a doubt, his entry into the race will have a ripple effect on the other candidates, and potentially on the ward races as well. Whether Bigger is better may be an open question, but without a doubt Bigger will be a game changer in the race for Mayor.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Green Party President Paul Estrin's 'Why Gaza Makes Me Sad' Crossed a Line

This blogpost is not about the conflict currently underway in Israel and Gaza. Rather, it’s about the reaction to that conflict which is currently playing itself out in my Party, the Green Party of Canada. And it’s also about my personal experiences with the reaction to the conflict. The specific motivation for this post was a recent blog entry made by the Green Party of Canada’s President, Paul Estrin (see: “Why Gaza makes me sad,” Paul Estrin, Green Party of Canada Blogs, July 25, 2014) which made its way into the public sphere over the weekend thanks to social media connections.

I understand, based on a remark now posted at the bottom of Mr. Estrin’s post, that since publishing the post on Friday, Mr. Estrin has removed reference in the post to his position as President of the Green Party of Canada. Mr. Estrin indicates that he is instead sharing his personal perspective on the Green Party’s blogsite.

The Green Party's Blogsite

First off, let me try to qualify myself here. I am a member of the Green Party of Canada in good standing, and I am currently an Officer with the Nickel Belt Green Party of Canada Electoral District Association. I have no authorization from the Central Party, as per the Party’s Constitution, to speak on behalf of the Party. Nor do I have any authorization from my EDA’s Executive to make statements on its behalf. Given my lack of authorization, I want to make it very clear that I am writing today only as a member of the Green Party of Canada – and no more should be read into this post by anybody.

And the same is true for Mr. Estrin’s post. As a past and one-time frequent contributor to the Green Party’s blogsite, I feel that it is incumbent to let the public know that the Party does not vet or in any way impede the posting of Member’s blogs. If you are a member of the Green Party in good standing, you can apply for a Login to the Member’s section of the site. Once logged in, you can make a post to the Party’s blogsite. Nothing more is required. Blogposts are not hidden by “members only “ firewalls – they are available for the public to view.

The Green Party’s blogsite is a unique feature of my Party, in that it encourages members to actively engage with one another, in a public venue, on matters of importance to the membership – or at least to an individual member. As per the Party’s Constitution, individual members must be authorized to speak on behalf of the Party, or as per the Constitutions of many Electoral District Associations, authorization is also required to speak on behalf of an EDA. Since making my first few blogposts back in 2007-08, I’ve always appended a disclaimer to my blogposts that my views are my own, and that I’m not writing on the Party’s behalf. While not everyone who posts on the Green Party’s site includes similar disclaimers, the fact of the matter is that there is a general understanding in the Party that a post to the blog site is to be in no way construed as representative of the Party’s policy, position or platform.

But values are a different story – one I’ll come back to.

The Party’s blog site is a space created by the membership for engagement. It’s not unusual to find a post made by an individual which challenges member-approved policy or questions decisions made by the Party Leadership. This would be completely unheard of in other parties, and would likely lead to sanctions against individual members. It seems to me that other parties put far too high an emphasis on message management. We Greens instead choose to engage in the messy process we call democracy – and try to do so in a transparent and respectful way. Having a blog site on the Party’s website with content generated by the membership speaks volumes about the inherent values of my Party. Shutting down and stifling respectful differences of opinion has no place in my Party.

That being said, I have to also acknowledge that sometimes, this blog site gets the Party into trouble. In the past, some posts have been made by the membership which have led to questions to the Party regarding the Party’s position on certain matters. People see a post on the Party’s website and some immediately take that post to be representative of the Party’s position or policy – sometimes simply because the Party’s logo might appear on the webpage, other times because it seems to some unfathomable that a political party in Canada in this day and age would tolerate anything but “the party line” posted to its website. Even I, one of the biggest supporters of our blog site, have to acknowledge that the very existence of this blog site causes confusion about the Party amongst the public – and even confusion amongst our own membership.

Years ago, a link to our blog site appeared on the front page of our website. When the Party’s website was redesigned, the link disappeared, and while the blog site still exists, anyone chancing on our site would have a heck of a time trying to find the blogs. But, linking one’s post to social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, can and does make blog posts accessible. And certainly, if you know where to look, you can find all of the blogs.

Since the removal of the link, many Green bloggers, myself included, decided to make the shift to maintaining personal blogs elsewhere other than the Green Party’s website. For a while, I continued to cross-post my blogs to my own personal Sudbury Steve blog and the Party website, but ultimately I moved away from the Party website all together. Now, I only post to the Party’s blog site when I feel that a specific post might be of specific interest to my Party. That being said, I continue to believe that the blog site can be a useful space for members to engage with one another and discuss important issues in a transparent way, although clearly it is being underutilized for those conversations.

Mr. Estrin's Post

All of this brings me back to Paul Estrin’s blog post of Friday, July 25, 2014. Given the above, it is clear to me that Mr. Estrin made this post only as a member of the Green Party in good standing, and not as an official spokesperson of the Party. Although Mr. Estrin is President of the Party, his opinions and posts to our blog site cannot and do not bind the Party to any position at all. That being said, I also totally understand why a blogpost identifying Mr. Estrin as President of the Party can be (and clearly has been) misconstrued as being representative of the Party’s position. I sincerely believe that it was not the intent of Mr. Estrin to mislead anybody into thinking that his opinion was in alignment with the Party. I believe this because I know that Mr. Estrin and I were present at the recent Green Party of Canada General Meeting, held in Fredericton, in which two motions relating to the conflict in Israel and Gaza were discussed by the membership. Further, Mr. Estrin’s own edits to his post clearly demonstrate that he understands his post is representative only of his own opinion, and not the Party’s.

It may be that Mr. Estrin made a mistake by identifying his position in the Party on his blogpost. I’ve not personally made my mind up about that, as I think there was some merit to the membership for him to identify himself as President of the Party. What might have helped initially would have been the sort of disclaimer that he eventually placed on his post, indicating that the view he was discussing was his own alone, and not the Party’s. Again, ultimately, Mr. Estrin made an edit to the post to clarify.

Mr. Estrin’s post has been receiving a lot of feedback in social media, including feedback from Green Party members. Some of my Party’s membership have shared their thoughts and views on the Green Party’s blog site as comments appended to Mr. Estrin’s post. Generally speaking, comments from Greens, including those made by me, have been critical of Mr. Estrin’s post. Other comments in the public realm have praised Mr. Estrin for taking a “bold” stand on the conflict, while yet others have condemned both Mr. Estrin and the Green Party of Canada for holding Mr. Estrin’s views on the conflict.

My Issue with Mr. Estrin's Post

Again, my post today is not going to explore Mr. Estrin’s opinion, or anyone else’s opinion for that matter, on the conflict in Gaza and Israel. I’m here to write about why I believe Mr. Estrin crossed a very serious line with his post, and why I believe he should now resign his position as President of the Green Party of Canada.

The fact that Mr. Estrin expressed his personal opinion on a matter, whether he identified himself as the Party’s President while doing so or not, is not, in my opinion, particularly problematic from the perspective of a legitimate use of the Green Party’s blog site to further discussion amongst members (although I do acknowledge the confusion it has created). That Mr. Estrin’s opinion might not be entirely in keeping with the Party’s policies or positions on this matter is also, frankly, of no concern to me – in fact, I believe that by posting to the blog site, Mr. Estrin’s intention was to foment discussion – the very sort of healthy political discussion that I think we need more of today in Canadian politics, not less.

Where I am expressing significant concern is with some of the characterizations which Mr. Estrin uses in his lengthy post – and in particular, a characterization of Muslims which I find offensive. I know that “cherry picking” certain words and phrases from a much longer piece can lead to mischief – let me be clear, that’s not my intention. The phrase in question stands alone in his lengthier essay, and there appears to be no good reason why Mr. Estrin included it, except to inflame the discussion by painting an identifiable group of people in a negative, and completely inappropriate, light.

The phrase in question is directed towards “peace activists” (which Mr. Estrin refers to in a follow-up comment pejoratively as “peaceniks”):

“We need to re-examine our priorities if we are marching in the streets. Unless we want to see another Mullah amongst us, where other religions aside from a certain variety of Islam are not allowed, where synagogues are used as latrines and garbage dumps and Christians are living in constant fear.”

The implication here is clear, and it’s nasty. Canadians and others “marching in the streets” in favour of ending the conflict in Gaza and Israel must be willing to accept what Mr. Estrin believes to be the inevitable the outcome of such protests. Mr. Estrin’s conclusion is completely off-base, and extremely offensive. And it grossly mischaracterizes Muslims as being anti-Jewish and anti-Christian.

And that’s why I believe that Mr. Estrin’s post has no place on the Green Party’s website. Anti-Islamic language such as Mr. Estrin’s has no place in any respectful and legitimate discourse on any subject, much less on a site hosted by the Green Party for respectful discourse.

The Values of the Party

Further, Mr. Estrin’s gross mischaracterization of Muslims is not in keeping with the Green Party’s values, specifically that of “respecting diversity”. By attempting to associate anti-Jewish and anti-Christian behaviour with an identifiable group, in this case a “certain variety” of Muslims, Mr. Estrin has clearly crossed the line of respectful discourse and veered instead into what can only be construed as offensive.

If Mr. Estrin sincerely believes that we are at risk of Muslims turning synagogues into latrines because of our peaceful protests, not only is Mr. Estrin completely misinformed, but he needs to resign his position as President of the Green Party – and frankly, he should also resign his membership in the Party. And let me be clear – Mr. Estrin does, in fact, make it very clear that he is quite serious about his belief in this risk, as later in the piece Mr. Estrin attempts to justify his fears by indicating that these events happened in Jordan in the past. Mr. Estrin should keep in mind that the past is not prologue, and what may have happened in another place and another time is not demonstrative of what may happen here and now.

Unfortunately, this gross mischaracterization of Muslims taints Mr. Estrin’s piece in its entirety – at least for me. While others have seen valid points in Mr. Estrin’s post, the anti-Islamic tone precipitated by Mr. Estrin’s characterization of Muslims is hard to overlook and should not be overlooked.

Legitimacy and Confidence

Yesterday, I posted a comment to Mr. Estrin’s post in which I asked Mr. Estrin to resign. I reposted my comment to my Facebook Page, to which Mr. Estrin responded – so I know he’s seen my request for him to step down as President. I continue to believe that for the good of the Party, Mr. Estrin should resign. Mr. Estrin can make this decision on his own – and should do so in the next day or two.

Otherwise, the Party may be left with no choice but to have our Federal Council review the situation and make a decision on his removal from Federal Council, as per Section of the Party’s Constitutional by-laws. In arriving at a decision, should one be warranted, I believe that it is incumbent upon our Federal Council to strongly consider the anti-Islamic viewpoints expressed by Mr. Estrin, and question whether these views can be reconciled with the Party’s value of respecting diversity.

If Mr. Estrin does not act on his own initiative, and if our Federal Council fails to act, I believe that my Party is headed towards a crisis of legitimacy. This is not about free speech or controlling the views of party members – I sincerely hope that my blogpost has made it clear that I, and the majority of Greens, value the ability to publicly disagree with one another and our Party, if done with respect. This isn’t about anybody’s opinion on the conflict underway in Israel and Gaza. And this certainly isn’t about trying to sweep a sensitive political matter under the carpet, as some have suggested.

This is about respectful discourse in keeping with the values of the Party.

And I believe that’s the line Mr. Estrin has crossed.

Of course, it may be that by writing this post, as a member of the Party, I am also in contravention of the Party’s by-laws and should be made subject to discipline. I believe that what I’ve written here today (and elsewhere yesterday) has been in keeping with the values of the Party. If I am to be made answerable for what I’ve written, I’ll accept whatever consequences arise as a result. The good of the Party remains my primary concern, and it is what has motivated me to write about this episode with Mr. Estrin. I continue to believe that the good of the Party would be best served by not having Mr. Estrin occupy the position of President any longer – no matter how that may come about. If expressing my opinion on this matter should lead to a complaint process with the Party’s Ombuds Committee, or our Federal Council’s consideration of my expulsion, I am prepared to reiterate my reasons and motivation for writing this post to whatever body of the Party that may charged with considering the matter.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lack of Attention to Lake Water Quality Contributing to Systemic Public Concerns in Greater Sudbury

Something has been simmering beneath the City of Lakes’ political surface for some time now, and as the summer temperature has started to rise, the issue appears to be bubbling to the top of mind of our citizenry. It’s not the usual issue about roads, or about how tax dollars are spent and why – although both roads and taxes play a part in shaping and defining this issue. In short, Greater Sudburians are becoming increasingly fed up with the lack of attention we are collectively paying to water quality issues, especially those which impact drinking water sources, such as Ramsey Lake.

These water quality concerns are themselves part of a broader discussion having to do with the livability of our City. Frustration from many sides has really started to set in with the baby steps that our City has been making, versus the strides that citizens have really started to expect. Too often, when it comes to progressive measures to make our City a better place for residents, resistance is encountered, and every little effort ends up taking up far too much time and resources. It’s often two steps forward, one step back.

The health of our lakes, though, is really a bellwether issue, because it is an issue based both on logic and emotion. Logically, we know that it’s important to maintain and improve the health of our lakes, especially those which are sources of our drinking water. We know that as Sudburians, we must be good stewards of our natural resources. It’s because most everybody in the City seems to have some attachment to our lakes that the issue can take on an emotional aspect as well. We’re proud of our lakes, and we like to use them and show them off. In a City with 330 lakes, it’s hard not to form a positive attachment to them!

Blue-Green Algae

Yet every summer, the notices from the Health Unit start to come out. This beach or that beach is closed, thanks to blue-green algae. Right now, a number of beaches on Ramsey Lake are closed, and it’s not clear when they may be reopened again. So much for taking the kids swimming at Bell Park, Sudbury’s emerald jewel in the heart of our City.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, is toxic – you can get very sick just by swimming in water which has been contaminated by it. It forms at this time of year due to a number of factors, but the presence of high nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the water is a primary culprit. These nutrients naturally occur in our lakes, but urban development contributes additional inputs, thanks in part to a lot of additional hard surfaces which hurry stormwater runoff into receiving water bodies before it can be absorbed naturally.

For more information on blue-green algae, visit Health Canada’s website.

Now, after that public service announcement, back to my blog.

Watershed Studies

Provisions requiring watershed studies have been in the City’s Official Plan at least since 2005 (the year that the Official Plan was updated to incorporate all area of the amalgamated City). While watershed studies for major lakes have been required for almost a decade, none have been done. In 2013, Council voted to make watershed studies a priority (see: “Greater Sudbury city council unanimously passes motion in support of watershed studies”, Naomi Grant, Grassoots Media Co-Op, May 16, 2013), but we’ve heard little more about them since that time. Now, with the City’s Official Plan being updated again, it seems likely that watershed studies are going to remain sidelined for the foreseeable future.

These watershed studies are important, as they would provide a level of baseline data regarding the health of lakes and rivers in a watershed. Ideally, watershed studies would be used to help direct development to appropriate locations – those areas where it will have a minimal impact on the health of our waterbodies. At the very least, they’ll provide direction for mitigating development impacts on the watershed. But instead of doing these studies upfront, Greater Sudbury has continued to put the development cart before the precautionary principle horse. Incredibly, large areas of the City have been set aside for as-of-right urban development through the Official Plan and zoning without knowing whether these locations make any sense from a water quality perspective. A great example of this is the abundant land within identified floodplains designated “Living Area” in the Official Plan.

Our City isn’t alone in operating like this, but with our massive geography and the sheer number of lakes and rivers within our boundaries, we feel this issue more acutely than elsewhere. Development decisions in this City may look at mitigating and minimizing impacts on certain environmental features (such as establishing setbacks from shorelines for buildings and septic systems), but these one-off decisions fail to assess the real culprit with lake water quality issues: cumulative impacts. The watershed study would be the appropriate vehicle to start looking towards cumulative impacts, and shaping the direction of future development as a result.

Yet we’ve not prioritized the development of these studies.

Concerned Citizens

In light of this reality, is it really any surprise that citizens are now starting to get a little hot under the collar where new development is proposed and the long-term impacts on the health of our lakes, rivers and streams aren’t known, and aren’t being assessed?

Citizens have started banding together, demanding that a higher level of practice be used by our City when it comes to new development. A few years ago, urban lake stewardship groups came together under the banner of the Greater Sudbury Watershed Alliance, in part over concerns that individual voices were being dismissed by City Hall. The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury has brought a number of citizens groups together to advocate for watershed studies, and the implementation of healthier and pre-emptive responses to water quality management, such as naturalization instead of expensive retrofits (like what we see on Lady Ashley Court a few years back).

Together, these groups have experienced only limited success – they’ve at least brought the issue forward onto the Council table agenda. Generally speaking, however, they’ve failed to change the culture at City Hall in any meaningful way. Development decisions in absence of water quality impact information continue to be made. New homes are being built in sensitive flood plains. Stormwater management standards remain mired at the level of provincial minimums.

The Camel’s Back Breaks – Second Avenue

Yet, even though their successes have been very limited, these groups are starting to experience push-back from the City, developers and other citizens who may have different agendas. Recently, when a major road widening of Second Avenue was presented as a fait accompli to Minnow Lake residents, the Minnow Lake Restoration Group and Minnow Lake Community Action Network decided to write a letter to the Ministry of the Environment requesting a “bump up” to the municipal environmental assessment process used to determine the level of consultation and assessment of alternatives. By breaking the project down into multiple parts over a number of years, rather than treating the project as a whole, it was very clear from the outset that the City was doing what it could to avoid going through a more comprehensive level of environmental assessment – one which would look at cumulative impacts and assess other options.

The fiasco and finger-pointing which have resulted from Second Avenue could easily have gone down quite differently had the City better prioritized watershed planning. Again, these plans are a requirement of the Official Plan, and in almost 10 years our City of Lakes hasn’t managed to prepare a single one. The Minnow Lake Restoration Group has argued that the five-laning of Second Avenue will create additional stormwater inputs which will flow directly into Ramsey Lake. The City says that those inputs are manageable – but really, the City doesn’t know, because the background work has never been done. Right now, all the City can really do is offer its best guess. And while that may have been good enough in the past, as Bob Dylan sang, “the times they are a-changing”.

If the redesign of Second Avenue were the only project which was being considered within the Ramsey Lake watershed, chances are that the City’s “best guess” might just be fine. But it’s not. There is significant development which has been approved for the Minnow Lake area (which is in the Ramsey Lake watershed), including the massive residential subdivision south of the Silver Hills big box stores. Still in the Ramsey Lake watershed, three multi-storey apartment towers have been greenlighted for lands overlooking the Brady Mall, and the former St. Joseph’s hospital site is being redeveloped into multiple condominium units. Another big subdivision just west of the Sudbury Curling Club and just off of Howey Drive is currently at the Ontario Municipal Board, where it will likely be approved. Ramsey Lake’s watershed has not enjoyed a comprehensive assessment of how these and other developments will impact it.

Adapting to a Changing Climate

And the blue-green algae continues to bloom, earlier every year it seems. Studies prepared for the Nickel District Conservation Authority show that Sudbury can expect hotter and longer summers over the coming decades, thanks to climate change. Temperatures here are expected to increase slightly more than average global temperatures (generally, the further north one goes, the more extreme the temperature change is likely to be – Sudbury’s mid-latitude position means we won’t be impacts as much as some regions, but we’ll receive more than our fair share of warming). Since we can’t change the weather patterns, if we’re going to get lake water quality issues under control, we’ve got to figure out a way to address other inputs, such as nutrients from stormwater runoff.

The argument has gone that watershed studies are simply too expensive to undertake, even for priority waterbodies like Ramsey Lake, a drinking water source. I can’t buy this any longer, as the cost of not doing these studies and continuing to approve development in absence of data and direction will end up costing this City more in the long run than doing things right, up-front, and prior to decisions being made. We can’t afford (literally afford) to ignore this any longer.

Deligitimizing Public Discourse

Yet, the intransigence at City Hall remains real. And the push-back on citizens who dare speak out against development in absence of information is starting to get a little nasty. A column written by Northern Life reporter Darren MacDonald recently took to task two individuals who have been in the forefront of wanting to make our City more livable (see: “Did activists hijack the Second Avenue consultation process?”, Northern Life, July 21, 2014). I have to admit, I have become used to seeing MacDonald’s arguments made by anonymous posters in the comments section of his paper and other local media, but it surprised me that a journalist would attack the good work being done by John Lindsay, Dot Klein and the Minnow Lake CAN and Minnow Lake Restoration Group - particularly through implying that somehow they've gone outside of the system to achieve their ends. The headline used the term "hijack", which implies illegal action and evokes images of terrorism. Was this just to be provocative, or was there a not-so subtle insinuation that Lindsay and Klein are acting in a immoral manner? Either way, the term is clearly an attempt to delegitimize their participation in a public process.

This kind of delegitimizing attack from our local media on individual citizens will no doubt cast a shadow on those who otherwise might desire to speak up in favour of making our communities better places to live. Lindsay and Klein have been following the rules. For the Northern Life to compare them to "hijackers" is both incorrect and frankly, beyond the pale. In the column itself, MacDonald goes only so far as to suggest that they are "taking advantage" of the system - I would suggest that even that frame is incorrect, and assert rather that they are participating within the public system, legitimately.

Either we have democratic, transparent public processes for development activities, or we say that even the mirage of citizen participation in decisions affecting our communities is something we shouldn't tolerate as a society. For the media to denigrate legitimate and legal expressions of public discourse is extremely troubling.

Changing the Culture at City Hall

MacDonald’s angst appears to be motivated by the notion that somehow John Lindsay and Dot Klein are to blame for costs associated with holding up construction for another season. MacDonald also creates a straw-man argument that those who stand in the way of intensification and redevelopment within urban areas are proving a detriment to a City keen on implementing smart growth principles. MacDonald also completely misses the point that the public consultation process for Second Avenue was designed to be anything but real consultation, and although the City chose to address some of the concerns raised by cyclists and decided to include off-street cycling infrastructure on paved boulevards (likely simply because they could), this last-minute inclusion actually demonstrates the failure of the process. Why weren’t groups like the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury, the Minnow Lake CAN and the Sudbury Cyclists Union invited to provide input into the project prior to the creation of plans in the first place? Did the City really not expect the Minnow Lake CAN not to show up and voice its concerns over the redesign of a major arterial which, once again, failed to consider the inclusion of cycling infrastructure, despite the direction provided to the City through the Sustainable Mobility Plan, accepted by the City in 2010? This is the same Minnow Lake CAN which was instrumental in getting bike lanes on the Howey-Bellevue-Bancroft corridor.

Rather than approach the public for real input and a desire to assess alternatives, which would have promoted public buy-in to the project, the City instead said “Here’s what we’re going to do. Now tell us what you think.” Again, in the past, that might have been enough, but the camel’s back has been broken. The approach that citizens are now telling our City to engage in is to come to the public first, as a starting point, and ask “Given that we have this challenge, what do you think we can do to address it to achieve the outcomes we need to achieve?”

Change the Starting Point

Our decision-making processes are public for a reason: they have been designed with citizen engagement in mind. And although it’s often true that our public bodies choose to do the very minimum when it comes to engagement, those minimum requirements processes are nevertheless there to engage the public. Although some in our City have started to bemoan what’s happened with Second Avenue, the fact is that our Environmental Assessment process is a public one, and real concerns raised by citizens are often legitimate, and can lead to improved outcomes. The really unfortunate part is that our City hasn’t followed through on the promises that it made in the Official Plan to undertake watershed studies which could otherwise guide development (and lead to less friction and better decision-making). And as an addendum, although permitted by EA rules, coming to the public so late in the process with a fait accompli really isn’t the best way to engage in meaningful consultation.

The City can’t have it both ways, though. If it wants to play around with development projects in order to get away with doing as little as possible with public participation, all within the rules, it can’t then take issue with citizens who are themselves following the same rules in order to have their voices heard. This isn’t NIMBY. This isn’t about opposing intensification in neighbourhoods. It’s about ensuring that good decisions are made which have minimal impacts on communities. It’s really about changing the starting point of the development process by relocating it to a place which is truly consultative. In the long run, it’s about minimizing potential conflicts and doing things right the first time.

21st Century Solutions

Moving ahead into the 21st Century, our lakes will continue to face challenges to their long-term health, especially those which are impacted by development. For too long we’ve ignored water quality issues, and those issues have now started coming to a head. There aren’t any easy answers to address these issues, given the current physical state of the City, but we can do a much better job of minimizing impacts on a go-forward basis. To do so, however, requires data and direction – the very sort of data and direction which could be provided through the creation of watershed plans which assess the cumulative impacts from development.

Comprehensive planning which leads to better decision making isn’t focused narrowly on costs. Frankly, it’s not all about money. But for those who are concerned about the bottom line above all else, comprehensive planning can, and does, save money over the long term by getting things right the first time. Although our leaders have said for many years that we can’t afford to do the watershed studies required by our Official Plan, we are already paying far too high a price for a lack of understanding of the impacts that our past, and current, development decisions are having on our lakes.

Had lake water quality impacts been assessed upfront by the City for Second Avenue, it’s doubtful that this construction season would have been lost. Blaming private citizens for the costs of delay is completely wrong-headed, given the City’s broken promises to the public with regards to watershed planning. Second Avenue, blue-green algae and the stronger voices of citizens groups ought to be a wake-up call to our City to finally get moving and deal with these important issues in a transparent and accessible manner.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Denying the Reality of Climate Change is No Longer an Option

Recently, U.S. President Barack Obama called climate change deniers a “radical fringe” and compared them to people who believe the moon to be made of “green cheese”. In frustration, Obama remarked, “It's pretty rare that you'll encounter somebody who says that the problem you're trying to solve simply doesn't exist,” said Obama (see: “Obama knocks climate change deniers: Like telling JFK 'the moon is made of cheese'”, Evan McMurray, Mediaite, June 14, 2014).

Yet, climate change denial is both real, and dangerous. Denial has created a false impression with the public that the science of climate change remains unsettled. For too long, the conversation in the media has been focused on the question, “is it happening?” and not “what can we do about it?” In an effort to shape public opinion, deniers cynically attack established climate change science, along with the scientists and academic institutions engaged in research.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Assessment Report, released last year, identified an overwhelming consensus that the planet is warming due to human industrial activities. Pegged at 95% certainty, this consensus is actually higher than the consensus that cigarette smoking causes cancer. Denying that the climate is changing, or that humans are responsible for these changes, simply ignores all evidence to the contrary.

In response, some major media outlets have discontinued giving deniers a platform in the name of “journalistic balance”. Last year, the Los Angeles Times stopped publishing non-fact based opinion pieces from those claiming climate change was a hoax, or that the science was unsettled (see, "On letters from climate deniers" Paul Thornton, L.A. Times, October 8, 2013). Earlier this month, the British Broadcasting Corporation decided it would no longer air guests who dispute established scientific facts (see, "BBC Institutes Changes to Prevent 'False Balance' in Science Reporting", Katharine Trendacosta,io9, July 4, 2014)

The well-funded cadre of climate change deniers are responding to the media’s new-found intolerance of denial. Calling themselves “climate optimists”, they are shifting away from absolute denial to arguing that climate change may actually be a good thing – or at least not as bad as 97% of the world’s climate scientists make it out to be (see: "The Climate Optimists", Well Oremus,, July 9, 2014). If a warming planet is good, or at least not bad, their argument goes that we can continue to put off the “what can we do about it?” conversation. However, this “do nothing” argument is doomed to crumble in the face of extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, flash flooding and forest fires – all of which the scientific consensus agrees we are already seeing more of. The climate crisis can’t be ignored.

Besides a few elected officials who have built their reputations on denying the science of climate change (such as U.S. Senator James Inhofe), the most egregious climate change deniers are the ones encountered on social media. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are littered with mean-spirited deniers, many of whom hide behind anonymous names and accounts, probably out of fear of being publicly ridiculed for their fringe beliefs.

Last year, Popular Science turned off its website’s comments feature, citing that anonymous comments were “undermining bedrock scientific doctrine” through non-factual arguments (see: "Why we're shutting off our comments", Suzanne LaBarre, Popular Science, September 24, 2013). Referring to scientific studies that show public opinion can be influenced by messages posted in online comment forums – something long known by climate change deniers - Popular Science claimed that fostering fact-based discussion was more of a priority than providing a platform for those with an anti-science agenda.

With the scientific facts of climate change now well known amongst the public, it's time for Canada's mainstream media to catch-up and deny the deniers a public platform for their made-up worldview. Climate change is real, and it's happening. Printing and broadcasting observations of “green cheese” are unhelpful and damaging to the conversation that we need to be having: what now are we going to do about a warming world?

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star, Saturday, July 19, 2014 online as "May: Denying climate change no longer an option", without hyperlinks.