On the first anniversary of Fred Eisenberger's election as Mayor of Hamilton, Spec City Hall columnist Nicole MacIntyre asks her Hall Marks readers to share their opinions about how Eisenberger is doing so far.
Inevitably, the comments turn mostly around comparisons between Eisenberger and former Mayor Larry Di Ianni, who had a very different leadership style. Since Eisenberger was elected partially because he's not Di Ianni, it simply makes sense to compare the results of the two mayors in the context of their their respective leadership styles.
Di Ianni had fixed positions on the major issues facing the city and wasn't prepared to brook dissent over those positions. He was arcane in his dealings and unyielding in his political battles.
Consider as an example the contentious Aerotropolis boundary expansion, which was included by default in all six GRIDS long-term planning proposals.
When I asked Di Ianni why Hamiltonians weren't allowed even to consider a future without Aerotropolis, he answered that "it wouldn't be honest" because he had no intention of not proceeding with it.
I asked why the city had to expand the boundary before conducting the studies on whether it's a good idea to expand the boundary, and he answered, "My hunch is that it's desirable; otherwise, we wouldn't even have launched the studies."
It took an OMB appeal by Hamiltonians for Progressive Development and the Ontario government to get the horse back in front of the cart on that issue.
This was characteristic of Di Ianni's leadership style, which tended to split the city into a false dichotomy of supporters and obstructionists.
When I asked Di Ianni about peak oil, he dismissed it as fearmongering and insisted it would not affect the future viability of expressway- and airport-oriented economic development.
(Just a couple of years later, oil futures are trading for nearly $100 a barrel and oil industry analysts warn that prices are only going to keep getting higher and more volatile as global production rates strain to meet growing demand.)
Quite simply, the old assumptions don't work any more, but Di Ianni was unwilling to rethink development business as usual.
This may have been strong leadership on Di Ianni's part, but it's not necessarily the kind of leadership Hamilton needs as it struggles with economic and ecological problems that represent a genuine discontinuity with the previous century of cheap energy, abundant land and steady outward growth.
Eisenberger, by contrast, is less forceful, less belligerent, and less divisive. His approach is to work cooperatively to get 'buy in' from stakeholders (on staff and in the community) rather than ramming his policies home.
His evolving position on light rail is a good example. Instead of coming out swinging with something like, "I'm determined that Hamilton will have a light rail line before I'm done," and colliding headling with council and the departments of public works and EcDev, he started by changing the Bus Rapid Transit office to a Rapid Transit office (dropping the word "bus"), securing a budget from council for a staffer, and arranging to have Hamilton included as part of the GTAA (it wasn't originally).
I often wish his approach was more forceful, but I'm reminded that the institutional departments of our government are not yet ready for light rail. Public Works is still preoccupied with traffic flow (though that has been changing slowly) and EcDev is still preoccupied with 'shovel ready' greenfields.
A slower approach looks a lot less impressive from the outside. It doesn't rack up a checklist of promises or accomplishments. It's especially infuriating for citizens and grassroots organizations who are already conceptually 'ahead of the curve'.
So far, it's too early to tell whether his approach will deliver in the fullness of time, but early attempts at pushing harder have had mixed results.
Eisenberger was soundly defeated when he proposed demolishing and rebuilding City Hall instead of renovating. It was a bizarre choice on which to take a firm stand, though Eisenberger maintains he will be vindicated in the long run as renovation costs continue to escalate.
By contrast, his more recent proposal, to convert Gore Park into a pedestrian plaza, has generated some much-needed public discussion and prompted a closer look by staff and stakeholders alike.
Unfortunately, the Downtown BIA has a longstanding affection for angled parking on the Gore. Whether Eisenberger can eventually bring Kathy Drewitt and co. on board will be an important test of his ability to realize his vision.
So far, his leadership style seems to be at odds with the grandiosity of his vision: a transformative change encompassing "the transition to the knowledge-based economy, the urban renaissance as exemplified by our downtown-waterfront district, and the modernization of our transportation infrastructure."
In his most recent interview with RTH, Eisenberger asked, "Is it going to be the car oriented community or a people oriented community? I choose the later. The question is, how do we get there?"
Again, he maintains that an approach based on collaboration and consensus stands a better chance of getting there than the bare-knuckles "blood sport" (in former Spectator editor Dana Robbins' words) that has long prevailed in Hamilton politics.
As Eisenberger put it, "We must get processes in place to give people the opportunuty to collaborate. That's a new word in Hamilton. Consensus has not been part of the political framework."
As anyone who has been on a committee knows, consensus takes time. It's not exciting and doesn't produce a lot of newsworthy fodder. In the execution of its minutiae, it's far from inspiring, which can lead to disappointment and cynicism from both participants and observers.
At its worst, it produces policy pablum: superficially innovative but ultimately conventional and humdrum. It takes a careful combination of visionary dynamism and honest engagement to produce truly inspiring collaborations.
There's a lot to be said for simply getting the trains running on time. However, the price we pay as citizens for the glamour of authority and certainty can be steep.
Ultimately, if Eisenberger can really foster a political culture of openness, collaboration and consensus, that would be a transformation in itself.
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