A simple mistake or a warning sign?
A closed-door episode that kept Londoners from hearing the political debate about rules for strip clubs and body rub parlours earlier this month — a problem politicians deemed an accident — is a symbol of a larger struggle to navigate city hall, some say - writes lfpress.com.
Two citizens found themselves unable to open a door to the public gallery when they tried to re-enter after a recess. It highlights the challenge to find answers and understand the rules at city hall.
In the aftermath, council directed staff to investigate, and later passed a motion to update procedures on the city’s website outlining how citizens can present to politicians.
A light is visible in the council chambers when the doors are locked. City staff don’t believe the public gallery was locked, but the door is heavy, staff said.
“We do believe we need to improve how we communicate to the public about those doors,” city clerk Cathy Saunders said. They’re closed to keep out noise from nearby staffers or evening cleaning crews, but will be propped open whenever possible from now on.
A Western University political scientist said whether the doors were closed or locked, the optics matter.
“The onus is on the municipality to present the correct image, whether that’s a sign that says ‘Come on in,’ or whether that’s holding the doors open with a magnet or wedge,” said Zack Taylor, an assistant professor at Western University.
“This is, I’m sure, an inadvertent oversight, but it might point to broader questions of whether more needs to be done to err on the side of telling people the door is open.”
It’s the second time this council’s been burned by the problem when open meetings appeared not so open after all.
Ontario’s ombudsman weighed in after the doors to city hall were locked by security staff amid a protest in 2015, clamping down on the city and recommending unimpeded access to the council chambers during open meetings.
AnnaLise Trudell, one of the women who couldn’t get past the door to witness the debate on adult entertainment rules this month, said the problem with the door is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle at city hall.
“The locked door is like a symbol. It was the most visual moment we had of all the barriers,” Trudell said, citing difficulty finding meeting agendas, tracking the dates for certain issues, and knowing how to request to present to politicians. Even sitting in the public gallery instils fear, she said.
“It’s like sitting in a courtroom,” she said. “There is that sense of not knowing what the rules are, and who has power, and what is even going on.”
Observers say the current policies and procedures surrounding local government make it tough for those without political knowledge to follow along.
“Unless you are well-connected to people who understand city hall or perhaps have a lot of past experience participating, it can be really difficult to even know how to have your voice heard on an issue or know how you can impact a decision that council is making,” said Shawna Lekowitz, founder of the group Women and Politics.
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