Hamilton

Residents daring to speak to Hamilton council find they are often met with hostility

Appearing before city council, says one resident, is starting to feel like a cross examination.

'I'm not a witness. This isn't a trial'

Ned Nolan was a video delegation on Friday. The experience, he says, was like "being cross examined." (City of Hamilton/YouTube)

Presenting via video conference, telling Hamilton city councillors why he feels a street near his house is unsafe, the fatigue and annoyance began to show on Ned Nolan's face.

The Kirkendall lawyer is the father of two small children. He had five minutes to present to city council's public works committee on why the city should proceed with a pedestrian-friendly pilot project on Aberdeen Avenue.

"It is of paramount importance to me that Aberdeen become a safer street," he told them. The changes "would help make our neighbourhood just a little bit safer."

Then, the questions came — a moment some city hall watchers say is becoming so fraught with disrespect and even hostility that it discourages people from presenting at all. Even a Wednesday integrity commissioner report chastizes councillors for their unwelcoming treatment of citizens who come to speak on issues important to them. 

"Did you not know the desire, the design, the practice on Aberdeen before you bought your home?" Coun. Terry Whitehead (Ward 14, west Mountain) asked Nolan.

"Did you know that Aberdeen on the safety audit before all the work was done, and before the consideration of a lane taken out in peak hours, was 525? That's the ranking?"

Don McLean of Citizens at City Hall says delegating is intimidating, if only for the public speaking aspect. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The questions kept coming. How many roads in Ontario link up to a 400-series highway? How many people make left-hand turns from Aberdeen at a certain time? How many kids have been hit and killed on the street in the last 10 years? When traffic is bumper-to-bumper, how many are speeding? Did Nolan know the capacity of Queen Street Hill?

"I wouldn't be able to answer a lot of your technical numbers questions, councillor," Nolan said. 

"All I'm saying is the strength with which I have to clench my daughter's hand for fear of that street, and hearing that from my neighbours and my friends, that is what I'm talking about. If you have questions about statistics, those are the questions I think you should ask to your expert staff."

As the questions proceeded, councillors called Nolan hypocritical and uninformed. After Nolan compared Aberdeen to an earlier Kenilworth Avenue road diet — a comparison he took from a city report — Coun. Sam Merulla (Ward 4, east end) said anyone who makes that "false equivalency" is lying.

"If people are making that comparison, there is no comparison. Stop lying," Merulla said. "Whether it's staff or the public, I don't want to hear it anymore."

The questioning was a recent example of what some city hall watchers say is an increasingly hostile attitude toward residents who appear before council. Recent weeks have seen councillors demand apologies and threaten delegates with legal action.

"We're sending the exact wrong message," says Coun. Maureen Wilson. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The city's integrity commissioner mentioned it under the heading "themes in Hamilton" in a report to council Wednesday.

'Unsolicited criticism'

Any issues with delegations need to be dealt with through the person chairing the meeting, the Principles Integrity report said. When councillors handle it themselves, the power imbalance makes it look like bullying.

"Members must recognize that in a public forum, opinions can and do conflict, passions are engaged, and unsolicited criticism is often offered," it said.

"That is part of the democratic process of government and members should not unilaterally address what they perceive to be offending behaviour."

Larry DiIanni, a consultant and former mayor, has noticed the hostility. DiIanni said any time he's been a delegate, councillors have been respectful.

Councillors seem to be reacting to social media, especially Twitter, he said. 

Twitter is nasty

"There's this harshness in the context of political discourse," he said of social media. "It's not illuminating. It's denigrating and often insulting."

But councillors, he said, have to be above that. "There's plenty of blame to go around, but there is a duty on the part of elected officials to take the high road."

Whitehead addressed the criticism during a council meeting Wednesday.

"What seems to be becoming more and more apparent is if you disagree with someone, then automatically they see it as disrespectful," he said.

"I want to be clear. We understand, and it's clear to us, who the activists [are] in our community, and who are not. They all belong to our community and they all have a right to speak. But I would suggest that activists are seasoned individuals and will probably be challenged a little more in asking questions. When you ask questions and there are inconsistencies in the answers, you're going to expose that. When you do that, that's not disrespectful."

Trying to 'trip up' delegates

Nolan, who hasn't tweeted since 2019, has delegated about four times over the years. Friday was the hardest.

It felt like "an attempt to discredit me," he said — to "trip me up" so they could make their own points.

"I'm not a witness," he said. "This isn't a trial. This is not a cross examination, and I felt like, with some, I was being cross examined."

Calling someone an activist, he said, is "a very easy way to dismiss anyone who's writing you a letter."

Don McLean, founder of Citizens at City Hall (CATCH), said delegating is a tough job for the public speaking alone. He's noticed more delegates in recent years — a discussion about defunding police this month drew dozens — and he wonders if councillors are subtly trying to discourage them. 

"It certainly isn't acceptable that councillors are badgering delegates," he said.

Can't argue with experiences

McLean has delegated numerous times over the years, and "sometimes the questions are a bit aggressive, but I've learned not to get angry. I just work my way around things as I go along. But it's not acceptable that council should behave that way toward citizen delegates.

"It's also not acceptable for them to behave that way toward each other, which also happens."

Peter Graefe, a McMaster University political scientist, said he's noticed a decline in decorum too, including when it comes to delegations.

"The point of a delegation is to allow information to flow from citizens in the city to elected representatives for the point of making better decision making," he said. "If they feel they're going to be bullied or ridiculed, they're more likely to not be attending council."

Leah Fuller, a Kirkendall resident, delegated on Friday for the first time. She followed Nolan, who "took the brunt of it," she said. She was prepared for the worst, she said, so she stuck with her own observations and only answered direct questions.

"They can argue with me on the studies," she said. "They can't argue with me on my experiences."

Whitehead was eventually ejected from the meeting Friday — a rarely seen event at council — for his questions to traffic management staff. The Aberdeen Avenue "road diet" pilot is going ahead.

Kudos from other councillors

Some other councillors applauded his passion Wednesday.

"I've noticed some of the unnecessary criticism, and at times mocking remarks, he has had to endure because he was fighting what the overwhelming majority of the west Mountain wants," said Coun. Tom Jackson (Ward 6, east Mountain).

"I just want to admire and recognize him."

Coun. Maureen Wilson (Ward 1, west end) had a different take.

"I just will not make excuses for that level of toxicity, for that level of behaviour," she said. 

"We need to protect and promote and advance local democracy. So when we treat citizen members who come to delegate like that, when we question their right to be there, when we question their intelligence, when we question their motives, we're sending the exact wrong message."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

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