Public discourse is necessary, but let’s not get carried away

[attach]3467[/attach]They’ve been around for almost 300 years, but their value as a symbol of public engagement appears greater than ever.

Town hall meetings are happening everywhere these days, it seems. Obama did several of them on his way to the presidency and Harper tolerates the occasional one from time to time. They fill hours of programming for CBC television and radio.

But true to their historical roots in colonial America, the contemporary town hall meeting is, ultimately, a fixture of local communities where the elected and their electors can go face-to-face despite the fact they often live around the corner from each other.

For some, these gatherings represent grassroots democracy in its purest form.

An issue of purported interest to the community is announced (normally by the locally elected public servant) and a place of assembly — the town hall or, more commonly, the local church basement — is reserved for the occasion. An expert on the issue is summoned to share their learned opinion. The assembled citizenry is invited to contribute their views and, at least back in colonial New England, the issue would be put to a vote at meeting’s end.

With last year’s local elections producing a freshman class of more than a dozen new members on Toronto city council, we can expect even more in the way of town hall meetings — minus the public’s vote at the end of the evening. Let’s not get carried away; there are limits to direct democracy.

Notwithstanding their deep historic roots, town hall meetings have suddenly become the hot, new flavour of the day around these parts.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in west end, Ward 13 where newly-minted city councillor Sarah Doucette, representing High Park and the surrounding communities, has pledged to host a town hall meeting each month for the duration of her four years in office.
Minus the occasional cancellation on account of vacations or bad weather, that still amounts to more than 40 of these sorts of public gatherings under Doucette’s watch. At what point do we cry ‘Uncle!’?

One imagines there might be a dozen or more issues that currently demand the public’s attention and debate in Ward 13. But 40 or more town hall meetings? Let’s get real: we’re talking about sleepy Bloor West Village and the Baby Point neighbourhood, not the inferno they call Baghdad.

Doucette’s kicked off this never-ending tour of democratic dialogue a couple of weeks ago at Swansea Town Hall, where she summoned former city budget chief Shelley Carroll and a couple of senior bureaucrats from city hall to help her explain Toronto’s 2011 operating budget to a polite crowd of about 50 mostly familiar faces.

By way of explaining the (unexplainable) city budget, the audience was treated to a bakery full of pie charts and graphs, all splendidly displayed on colourful power points. Squeezed into the final 20 minutes of the 90-minute meeting, a few questions were raised and even fewer opinions were ventured.

Full marks to Doucette for demonstrating her willingness to open the door to public discourse. It was something that somehow eluded her predecessor on council, Bill Saundercook, for years.

But, please, don’t call it a town hall meeting. In the end, this particular town hall bore all the markings of a mandated public information session and all the drama of a colonial knitting bee.