A new City Hall art exhibit by activist Dave Meslin asks the question: How can we increase citizen participation in local democracy?
Have you ever noticed the little public notices the city of Toronto puts in newspapers, or the signs that are posted near potential building developments? They advise citizens of a proposal or an opportunity to bid on a contract, and solicit opinions or participation.
It’s okay if you haven’t noticed, because the black-and-white text design limits any possibility that they might be understood. Headings like “Notice of Application(s)” or “Notice of Intention to Designate” run at the top, followed by dense blocks of impenetrable legalese.
In an art exhibit running until July 13 at the City Hall rotunda, local activist Dave Meslin asks what would happen if corporations took the same bland approach to advertising. His parody reads: “Nike, Inc. Notice of Retail Purchase Opportunity. Our regional distribution centre has received notice that product #372G (running shoe) will be available for retail purchase at certain locations, as of October 2nd. Product 372G has a mesh and synthetic nylon material shell with a carbon rubber outer sole…”
Of course, Nike doesn’t do that because it wants people to buy shoes. So it uses plain language, evocative images, and razor-sharp design to make its product look attractive. Now what if our municipal government actually wanted to encourage people to participate in local democracy? How would its approach change?
Meslin’s exhibit, The Fourth Wall, asks those questions and presents 36 concrete ways to increase public access to the process. Also available for viewing at thefourthwall.ca, the presentation consists of posters mounted on a series of boards encircling the rotunda.
The project addresses a variety of issues, including the need for a budget process that allows citizen participation, introducing better civics education for students, and redesigning the city’s website in order to highlight opportunities to run for office and get involved. The Fourth Wall illustrates just how much the current bureaucratic approach and political system discourages participation; it’s a process that often caters to those in power, rather than the citizens they actually serve.
Many of the proposals aren’t all that drastic, but might have a great impact. Why, Meslin asks, doesn’t the city hold elections on weekends, when more people would be able to participate? After all, as one chart illustrates, other city events that depend on public participation—Nuit Blanche, Pride, Doors Open, Caribana—are held on the weekend.
Meslin is tapping into a hunger for increased citizen participation in local politics among people who are currently alienated from the process—something he has built a career on as the founder of the Toronto Public Space Committee, the Toronto Cyclists Union, the election-participation contest City Idol, and the electoral reform group RaBIT.
I spoke to Meslin while he was setting up the exhibit on Monday, and mentioned that many people—reporters, citizens, activists, councillors—get sick of hearing about process all the time.
“Really, process is all there is,” he responded. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a wrong decision if the process is right, if everyone’s been involved. Even if you do make a mistake, you have the process in place to fix it.”
I told him that these proposals were ripe for the taking by anyone at City Hall who was interested in serving the people of Toronto. You could base an entire campaign on this stuff.
“Absolutely,” he said. “This is a whole mayoral platform right here.”
So I asked him, as one does at City Hall these days when confronted by a plan to make things better, if he’s planning to run for mayor in 2014.
“No,” he said. “Of course I’m not running for mayor. I’d just split the vote and wind up electing someone I don’t like because of the first-past-the-post electoral system.”
There’s a fix for that, of course: ranked balloting, which ensures that anyone who is elected has the support of a majority of voters. It’s the system every major Canadian and American political party uses to decide its own leadership, as do Academy Awards voters when they’re determining the Best Picture winner. It’s another one of the proposals you can learn about in The Fourth Wall exhibit.