On Tuesday evening, September 12th I attended the kind of community meeting familiar to many of us, a meeting hosted by Oak Bay Watch. Oak Bay Watch is an ad hoc group: the make-up of the group is unknown.
The attendance at the meeting was good – probably 160+ people as the meeting began. People were interested and appreciative although, as is often the case, the audience began to shrink after the first hour.
As someone who believes in grassroots democracy, the motivation, process, participants, and outcomes of all civic engagement fascinates me. This gathering fascinated me.
I commend Oak Bay Watch for their initiative. At the same time, the meeting challenges all of us, as citizens of our community, and Oak Bay Watch is challenged most of all.
The hook that was used to draw in the audience was fear, not hope.
“Do you have concerns about local government…
“Are you afraid of tax increases…
“Upset that our character, tree canopy and green space are threatened”
The focus was on maintaining the status quo (the past) rather than moving into the future.
The perspective was resistance to change rather than imagination of what could be.
In order to develop the resilience that will be the essential foundation for Oak Bay’s continued well-being, citizens must choose hope rather than fear, the future rather than the past, and imagination rather than resistance. They must choose transparency rather than accept obscurantism.
Oak Bay Watch itself was not transparent. Advocating open communication and transparency, they invited and introduced only one Councillor and called on only one Councillor, even though another Councillor was present and could have provided useful information as well. The invited Councillor was advertised as being a resource by virtue of being a Councillor, then introduced to the gathering as being there only as a citizen, and then called upon to comment, as a Councillor. The evening was probably a ‘send up’ of a mayoralty campaign. Effective citizen-led engagement would be more transparent than this evening was.
That said, important reality is that, like urban communities across the province, throughout the country and around the world, Oak Bay faces three sets of issues (challenges, problems).
Some of our issues are of our own creation.
(1) The current Council has been almost willfully ineffective. (Great players can have a terrible season if they don’t jell as a team and if they aren’t clear about the game plan.)
Oak Bay has major challenges (and associated costs) dealing with deteriorating infra-structure (aged water and sewage lines), infra-structure shortfalls (i.e. sidewalks), the prospect of new infra-structure demands (i.e. sewage treatment), and responding to recognized social needs (i.e. low income housing).
The Official Community Plan is mediocre. The District has quickly realized that the OCP does not have the strength to last the race, so the OCP is being marginalized one decision at a time, which is one of the reasons that decisions are made as “one off” decisions, rather than as comprehensive decisions.
The Council works inside a wrong understanding of governance. The District of Oak Bay is not a corporation. (Although provincial legislation describes it as such, it has none of the vital characteristics of a corporation. The province’s characterization is misleading.) The District of Oak Bay is a political self-governing jurisdiction, and the role of the Councillors is more nearly like the role of trustees of a trust rather than the Board of Directors of a corporation. Because the Council misunderstands the model, it misunderstands its relationship with electors, citizens, residents of Oak Bay. The most obvious expression of the misunderstanding is in the wrong approach to civic engagement. Civic engagement is not discretionary and it is not an act of beneficence: it is essential, justified by democracy, and wise.
A considerable number of civic organizations, both formal and informal, should be one important measure of the well-being of the community, not the bane of the existence of Councillors.
(2) Some of our issues are being imposed on us by external social, political, and economic realities.
The population of Greater Victoria is increasing and Oak Bay cannot resist the pressure of accepting some of that increase. We should remember that King Canute could stand at the water’s edge and command the tide not to come in: the command was futile.
Densification is coming to Oak Bay because we are in a location and climate that cannot be replicated, even if some provincial or federal government were prepared to create a greenfield community of 20,000. Densification will either occur as infill, like grains of salt scattered throughout the community (and poisoning the land in a figurative way), or it will come according to a plan, it will be concentrated and the concentration will help preserve other communities in Oak Bay.
The mix (bell-curve/normal distribution) of housing, and therefore the population mix, is disappearing. Many of the types (by income) of families that could find a home in Oak Bay 50 years ago cannot find a home today. A thoughtless insistence on remaining as we are will determine that we can never again be as diverse and resilient as we were in the past.
Not only is densification inevitable: it is desirable.
As a resident of Oak Bay I fully expect my taxes, insurance, and utilities to increase by about 40% (in constant dollars) over the next 4 – 6 years. There are only four options open to us and our Council. (1) We can reduce expenditures and see the further, dramatic, erosion of our infra-structure and our commonwealth. (2) We can sell assets, which would also result in the further, dramatic, erosion of our infra-structure and our commonwealth. (3) We can increase the taxes on the current mix of property. (4) We can change the tax mix, by increasing the number of residential and commercial properties.
Apart from the financial benefits of densification, there are social and ecological benefits, in terms of social justice, reduced energy costs, respect for the ecology, etc..
Oak Bay cannot command the tide to stay out.
(3) Some of our issues are wild cards, like catastrophic weather events.
We need to introduce new (costly) measures to protect our exiting infra-structure and ensure resilience in the aftermath of catastrophic events. We need to invest in new types of infra-structure (seawalls?) that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.
Tuesday’s meeting gave Oak Bay Watch much to think about. It should also have given our Council and all of us much to think about. We can do better.
Choose hope, not fear. Choose the future, not the past. Choose to create, not simply oppose.