Do we blame the politician who breaks the rules, or the citizen who tries to hold the politician accountable?
By Ryan McGreal
Published November 08, 2006
Hamilton is a remarkable city. Politicians commit crimes, violate city policies, break the rules, cheat, and make shady backroom deals, but somehow the citizens who try to hold them accountable end up looking like the bad guys.
Politician P breaks the rules, and citizen C tries to hold P accountable. P responds by denying the charge, lying, obfuscating, and attacking C's integrity. Finally, after a long, drawn-out struggle, we learn that C was correct all along and P really did break the rules.
At that point, do we criticize C for meddling, trouble-making, and witch-hunting? Or do we criticize P for breaking the rules in the first place and then lying about it? Consider some examples.
The Maple Leaf deal was negotiated in secret in the Mayor's office with no public input and in violation of the city's zoning rules (which prohibit slaughterhouses/rendering factories in Glanbrook's industrial area on the grounds that they're filthy and polluting).
Now Maple Leaf, which was trying to hide a series of convictions for pollution at its Rothsay rendering plant, is planning on quitting the province altogether to move its operations to a jurisdiction with laxer environmental laws.
The Lister Block deal was negotiated in secret in the Mayor's office with a company that had illegally overcontributed to the Mayor's election campaign and then hosted a fundraising gala to help pay for the Mayor's legal costs.
The deal was rammed through with no public input, even though it violated the city's downtown renewal plan, its King William Secondary Plan, and its heritage law, and was based on the demonstrably false claim that the building was not salvageable (even LIUNA's own architect admitted the building was structurally sound).
When a few citizens and councillors tried to insist that the city actually follow its policies, they were vilified as malcontents, moonbats, anti-business, blocking "progress".
Finally, after one councillor asked the province to intervene, a new deal was reached that preserves the building and provides the owner with a profitable investment in its restoration - after all the insisting that such a deal was not feasible.
The Aerotropolis deal was negotiated behind closed doors and foisted on the public with no choice, no alternative, and no advanced public feedback, even though it violates seven of the city's nine planning goals.
Two public meetings in which speakers overwhelmingly opposed the plan were completely ignored in the planning process, and the every one of the city's GRIDS growth options included the airport development.
When a few citizens and councillors tried to insist that the city follow its own rules and listen to its citizens, they were ignored, and then vilified for being malcontents, moonbats, anti-business, blocking "progress".
When a citizens' group and the Ontario Government appealed the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, the OMB ruled that the city was not allowed to go ahead with the aerotropolis plan until the research and public input that should have taken place already went ahead.
Perhaps the canonical example of this dynamic is Mayor Larry Di Ianni's campaign financing violations. The first article about possible overcontributions was written by John Milton and published on Hamilton IndyMedia in early 2004.
The Hamilton Spectator did not notice it until months later, and the issue was dismissed as a fishing expedition until Joanna Chapman, a Dundas bookseller and former councillor, took on the cause and requested City Council to investigate.
Council closed ranks around the Mayor (only one councillor, Dave Braden, voted pursue the investigation), and Chapman decided to pursue justice on her own, hiring a lawyer and fighting for a judicial audit of the Mayor's books.
Di Ianni ended up being charged with 41 counts of violating campaign finance law. He ended up facing only six of those charges in court, for which he pled guilty and was ordered to write an essay in punishment.
The local centres of power concluded that Di Ianni had made an honest mistake, his integrity was not in question, and he gamely took his lumps like a decent politician should. Ongoing attempts to hold Di Ianni accountable for the full range of his crimes are dismissed as a "witch hunt".
The evidence itself tells a different story. When a single cheque from a single donor for $1,000 is donated, but it is written into Di Ianni's books as two separate cheques - one for the legal maximum, $750, and the other for the balance - from two separate donors, that does not look like it could possibly be an honest mistake. It looks exactly like a deliberate attempt to get around campaign finance rules.
In this light, our inclination at RTH is to sympathize with the people - citizens, policitians, or city staff - who have a track record of being honest, dilligent in upholding their duties as citizens, and above all correct, again and again and again, about the abuses of power that characterize business as usual in this city.
The shady politicians already have the Chamber of Commerce, the Hamilton Halton Home Builders Association, the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington, the Hamilton Halton Construction Association, and the Hamilton Spectator to cover their backs.