What follows is an essay that Dave originally had posted on Xen Magazine. Since the magazine and the article are no longer on line, Dave has given me his permission to reprint his essays on the CFG site.
10 September 04,
Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding the possibility of my contributing to your new publication. I would have expected that my so-formal-as-to-be-positively-anachronistic writing style—with which you claim to be familiar—might have dissuaded you, given that we live in a day and age where journalism of all varieties (most particularly that variety practiced locally by The Dull Thud Daily and the Little Weaklies That Grew: a clear case of practice making far from perfect) is of the puffy, cumulonimbus type that seems to dissipate even as one is attempting to persuade oneself that there might be some manner of content in here somewhere.
You flatter me and I mean that with every sincerity.
However, rumours of my retirement have proven, so far, to be just that. While I assumed that—nine months after the completion of my quarter-century-plus of labour upon the world’s first 6,000 page graphic novel—I would have, this month, given birth to a wonderfully torpor-filled daily existence consisting in equal parts: long afternoon naps, prodigious book-reading and much aimless shuffling around the reflecting pool in Civic Square, such has (at least so far) not proven to be the case. Instead, I appear still to be working more fifteen-hour days than not, firstly in getting caught up on my three-year backlog of correspondence, then keeping current with the incoming correspondence as well as assembling an Archive of my illustrious-as-it-can-be-while-remaining-from-start-to-finish-largely-if-not-entirely-invisible career as well as preparing Dave Sim: Collected Letters 2004 for publication next spring.
It is this last that brings me, idiosyncratically and circuitously, to my point.
As you have expressed interest in the hitherto closely-guarded secret of my Monday evenings—I am the only citizen of Kitchener, so far as I know, to attend all of the Public Committee meetings and City Council meetings (“Being a life-long resident, business owner and having attended City Hall meetings for the last year, I would like to get some basic observations on the city: what problems do you see in Kitchener that need to be addressed? What are some possible solutions? What is Kitchener City Hall doing to apply those solutions?”)—I am loathe to send you away empty-handed even as I warily regard the dozen or so unanswered missives which preceded your own into the Gaukel Street Post Office which likewise demand my attention. So, perhaps as a “one-off” (as our elder British brothers would put it) or a foretaste of things to come (if my correspondence situation ever calms down to the vicinity of a dull roar), let me provide you with my letter to Mayor Carl Zehr of 4 March just past (pages 194-196 of the aforementioned Collected Letters) a little less than two months after I had paid the not-unreasonable sum of $460 to the Financial Services Department at City Hall for all Committee Minutes and Agendas for the coming year (not having Internet access, this is the price one has to pay for that which is available for free to the denizens of cyberspace). They even took a personal cheque for the amount which I thought was rather decent of them.
The letter, I think, is pretty much self-explanatory:
Mayor Carl Zehr
4 March 04,
Dear Mayor Zehr:
When I began attending Council and Committee meetings in January, I had resolved not to participate in any way until I had had a chance to “find my way around” the various procedures and paper-work (to which I am a subscriber), recognizing that the processes that I was witnessing are founded in democratic traditions dating back to 1066 and in local protocols and procedures which date back (at least) to the middle of the nineteenth century. I plan to continue to abide by that, for the most part—I usually learn something new every week that makes me glad that I’ve kept my mouth shut to this point—but I did want to express a view that occurred to me very early on (in fact in the first package of documents I received: Financial Services Department’s 2004 Budget Capital Funding Options, Schedule 4). The first time through, I attempted to “read between the lines” and being no stranger to politics (of course always from the sidelines: what I would call a “fan’s knowledge”), I guessed that this was a bureaucratic tactic to push for a dramatic expansion in the City of Kitchener’s borrowing authority and that options E or H were the intended “targets” ($80,000,000 in New Capital Capacity Created) and that options K and L ($180,996,617 in NCCC) had been included to make E and H look “moderate” by comparison. It’s a venerable and, from what I’ve seen, usually effective tactic. Having attended the public meeting last night in Council Chambers discussing the possibility of financing both the Downtown Development and the West Side Industrial Lands—with a cumulative “extra-budgetary” bottom line of…well, let’s just say closer to K and L than to E and H—I did think that I should probably say something. But then it occurred to me, in reading my notes I had jotted down just before the meeting came to order, that what I was discussing was perhaps a more over-arching concern than the immediate technicalities which were being discussed. Here’s what I had written [with corrective additions]:
I think, when you move to a new level of borrowing authority for the Mayor and Council you are morally obligated to impose a cap in the level of borrowing authority and to make [the possibility of moving to higher and] further plateaus subject to a plebiscite, otherwise the first-time borrowing of 180 million dollars over ten years opens the door for [next time] borrowing of a quarter of a billion dollars over fifteen years, a billion dollars over twenty years.* This sort of “stimulative deficit” is how most of the world’s governments started down the road to the mess in which they now find themselves. If you don’t establish a voluntary cap and make exceeding that cap subject to a democratic endorsement by “we the people” it soon becomes too late to do so.
* the extended terms, arguably, constitute a coup against successor administrations. It seems to me that the presupposition up until now has been that the Mayor and Council were justified in spending the ratepayers’ dollars in their term of office, not the ratepayers’ dollars which are properly under the jurisdiction of the next administration except in exceptional circumstances (i.e. a fixed number of large scale [big ticket] projects [like the construction of the new City Hall, emergency spending, etc.]) [that is, there was a previously widely-agreed-upon avoidance] to potentially be spending ratepayers’ dollars decades into the future [and that to do so] violates the spirit, if not the letter, of [the laws establishing] democratic government.
My first instinct was to contact Councilor Gazzola about this, since he seems to be the member of Council most concerned with “keeping a lid” on spending (and in my younger days I probably would have). As I have gotten older and more circumspect, there is more of an urge to “look before I leap” and I think it was this same instinct which kept me from saying something at the end of the public meeting last night. As your Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Fielding, has pointed out on several occasions, you and the members of the Council you oversee are the people who have stood for election—and won—and so are collectively responsible for the City of Kitchener’s final decision-making for the period of your term of office. Obviously, the fact that Councilor Gazzola is, except in rare instances, the lone dissenting voice on the present Council indicates quite eloquently that our present Council, by the will of the people, occupies the other end of the political spectrum from that occupied by Councilor Gazzola and myself and, consequently, the present council is going to authorize a greater number of capital projects and a greater expansion of the City’s borrowing authority to pay for those projects than Councilor Gazzola or I or like-minded individuals would be disposed towards were we to be the ones “calling the shots”.
But, it does seem to me, with all due respect (and I do have a great deal of respect, both for the office of which you are the present caretaker and for all of your own actions and words which I have witnessed and heard on the last number of Mondays—all political differences duly noted—in discharging the obligations which devolve upon it) that you, like the City of Kitchener itself, find yourself at a crossroads in “breaking through” to a new plateau of discretionary spending, one that at least potentially carries the seeds of various forms of destructiveness. Personally, I can’t fault the thinking behind most of the proposals “on the table” at the moment. But, it does seem to me to be analogous to playing multiple hands of blackjack simultaneously. After all, the destruction of Old City Hall and the building of Market Square seemed like a small calculated risk with the potential for an enormous payoff at the time—and it was only two decades later that the flaw in the plan became apparent with the Eatons bankruptcy. So, it seems to me a question of how many “winning hands” are you and Council playing? If you have all face cards showing and you turn up aces across the board, there is no question that this City will enter a new Renaissance and become a Municipal Crown Jewel in Southern Ontario. But the problem with playing multiple hands is that the winners tend to be offset by the losers. Even if you end up being right 50% of the time (high as probabilities go) all you do is come out even. Less than 50% of the time and you’re losing.
And while it’s true, as Mr. Fielding has also said, that it is the job of City staff to bring proposals to you and for you to pick and choose from the various proposals which ones you are interested in pursuing—and Mr. Fielding and Mr. Pizzuto in particular seem to me to have been more than adept at turning up several dazzling face cards for you (as I told Mr. Pizutto after the Council meeting where the UW proposal was first raised, I wouldn’t be surprised to walk into the next meeting and find out that he’s persuaded the Harvard Business School to move into a vacant building downtown)—it is also true that Mr. Fielding is not going to have to stand for election and that it is not Mr. Fielding who will have to face the public backlash if more than 50% of the blackjack hands on the table don’t have aces sitting face-down next to them. But, with the expansion of borrowing authority and the expansion of expenditure, Mr. Fielding’s own non-elected venue, the City bureaucracy is very likely to expand and, as is true with bureaucracies everywhere, a rising tide floats all boats but it’s the elected Administrators who end up drowning when that tide proves to be made up of red ink.
I’m afraid I must be taxing your patience with my long-windedness, so I’ll “cut to the chase”:
I think that you can minimize the political risk to yourself and to Council and the risk to the City of Kitchener that is posed by, in effect, opening the floodgates on borrowing authority if you voluntarily couple the current highly ambitious program with a year-over-year cap on future expansions of borrowing authority and/or discretionary spending. That is, having broken through to a new level in both categories, I’m sure that as a responsible Chief Executive Officer of a municipality you can see the wisdom in keeping that new level from becoming entirely open-ended—so that the City of Kitchener doesn’t end up in the same dire straits as, for example, the City of Toronto, the Province of Ontario and Her Majesty’s Dominion of Canada where so much money is needed just to pay the interest charges on accrued debt that each successive government is effectively hamstrung even before it takes office. It seems to me that the Keynesian theory of the stumulative deficit has been thoroughly discredited at this point, at least as an open-ended proposition. The sad results are all around us. Whether or not a closed model of the Keynesian theory is workable—so far as I know it has never been attempted—I think it at least deserves an attempted implementation, which is why I have addressed this letter to the only individual I know of who stands on the cusp of implementing the discredited model with the opportunity to innovate (what seems to me anyway) a more practical and responsible variation on it.
With, again, all due respect, I think you owe it to the sterling reputations of the predecessors to your office and to the successors who will follow you in that office to couple able custodianship with a long-term sense of fiscal responsibility and to decide—very much on your own, in the spirit of Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here”—where and what parameters exist at this new level: parameters that will leave to your successors the same fiscal “room to maneuver” (surely the most valuable political currency going) which you inherited when you took office.
And even if, as I’m sure it will, your own chosen parameters of where to place that cap will far exceed those parameters that would be favoured by Councilor Gazzola and myself, I can guarantee you that we will be the first on our feet to applaud the results if they do end up bringing about a “best of both worlds” situation. I think I’m safe in saying that if such a Keynesian Variation can be made to work in Kitchener, the success of that experiment would be as much—if not more—of a legacy of your tenure as those more direct benefits to the city itself that are being now considered.
Thank you for your time and attention. I’ll now return to the steep learning curve of the ins and outs of municipal political process.
Several days later, as I was in the midst of answering yet another reader inquiry seeking clarification about a story point and/or my personal systems of belief, the phone rang.
“Hello. Is Dave Sim there?”
"Mr. Sim, it’s Carl Zehr calling.”
The dislocation from my world of correspondence where I’m famous to my hometown world where I largely don’t exist was wrenching. I tried to place the name. Texas? England?
“The mayor of Kitchener,” he added helpfully into the widening silence.
“Oh, of course. How are you…” and I came up empty on the proper form of address for the mayor of a city. “Your worship” was what I was looking for and not finding. “…Mr. Zehr.”
He allowed as how he was fine and expressed his thanks for what he considered a very well-thought out letter. It is, of course, an astute political move to answer a very specific letter with a courtesy phone call. No paper trail. Of course the hidden flaw there is that it leaves one open to the paraphrasing of one’s viewpoints. Which I will now proceed to do.
The essence of the mayor’s point was that he didn’t consider it good business for the city for the mayor to tie his own hands in the manner which I was describing. There were too many possibilities of emergencies and what-not where last week’s wise cap on borrowing authority would become this week’s foolishness in light of changed circumstances. I prefer communication on paper for the exact reason that it’s easier to cover all bases and close off rhetorical paths of egress. Only later did it occur to me to suggest that the cap could exclude any sort of emergency: what I was discussing was the millions of dollars being spent bringing the UW School of Pharmacy and the Wilfrid Laurier Sociology campuses downtown. Of course it would be easy to see how that might be deemed an emergency depending on how desperate you think the Downtown Kitchener situation is—or will be.
But his larger point was, I think, sound. And points up admirably one of the hidden flaws of democracy in that a democracy slips from the hands of “we, the people” into the hands of elected officials as a result of apathy—and consequent abdication of authority—on the part of the citizenry. Kitchener City Hall was an enormous expenditure, as an example, for a municipality the size of ours. However, it has certainly provided a centre for Downtown Kitchener events, from Kristkindl to Cruisin’ and from Blues, Brews and Barbecues to near-weekly events in the City Hall rotunda. It is fully paid for and continues to pay dividends and has demonstrated that while Downtown can get downright weird (in the cliché-ridden pierced-and-tattooed way that all downtowns seem to share in the early hours of the twenty-first century), it is also quite safe and oftentimes genuinely interesting. The urge on the part of fearful suburbanites to string barbed wire and erect guard towers on Queen’s Boulevard to keep “those sorts of people” at bay seems to have dissipated according to Marty Schreiter of the Kitchener Downtown Business Association—he gets very few hate e-mails these days when another program to revitalize downtown gets passed and publicized in the Dull Thud Daily. It seems that suburban fear has given way to a genuine civic pride that we here in Kitchener—on occasion, intermittently and briefly—can almost be as exciting as Toronto (with the frisson of titillation that that thought engenders in your average Kitchenerite). Arguably a fully-mobilized citizenry intent on imposing their will would’ve prevented the new City Hall from becoming a reality. A great deal of money is being spent downtown and will be spent downtown along those same theoretical lines that supported the construction of the new City Hall, Your New Kitchener Market (“Your” in the collectivist, rather than individual sense) being the latest in the “Boon or Boondoggle?” category. If I had to make my best guess, I would say that the amounts on the table for various downtown projects, at this moment, exceed what the average citizen of Kitchener would consider “prudent” by a factor of at least five at both ends of the political spectrum. On the right because it is considered an excessive tax grab which will take money of the pockets of citizens—particularly senior citizens on fixed incomes—that would be of greater benefit circulating normally through the local economy. On the left, because All Those Millions could’ve been used to build low-income housing and to finance the Rube Goldberg-style social-engineering which is as beloved as mothers’ milk to our largely Marxist citizenry (he said, from somewhere to the right of George W. Bush).
But the larger point—as I took it, anyway—was a good one: it isn’t up to the mayor to tie his own hands. It’s up to the citizens of Kitchener to tie the mayor’s hands if they think it necessary. If 180 million dollars seems like too much, then, presumably Council Chambers should be filled to the rafters with irate citizens, registering as delegations to express their opposition to the Mayor and Council. There was a delegation of a dozen or so senior citizens at one of the Council meetings just after the figure of $200 million got bandied about in the Dull Thud Daily and Councillor John Gazzola (Fairview-Gateway Ward 3—God bless and keep you, sir) tried to rally the citizens against what he clearly saw as an unconscionable and ill-advised expansion. The mayor, with characteristic grace and equanimity, rode what little wave-making resulted and, essentially, shaped the foundation of the City’s financial house (unless I miss my guess) for generations to come with a minimal amount of dissent (including my own) and very-little-to-no opposition. Each Monday, after each delegation had been heard and had departed (I have yet to see anyone stay past the time of the goring of their own oxe, the hoeing of their personal row), there we were: Mayor Zehr, the six elected councilors, city staff and Citizen Dave. Patiently making our way, point-by-point through the various agenda items.
The mayor had asked me to come up and introduce myself after the next Council meeting. Which I did. “Nice to put a face to the name,” he said as we shook hands. Councillor Geoff Lorentz (Ward 5, Forest-Rockway)—he of the dry and acerbic wit (his exchanges with the Mayor whenever the subject of Regional government comes up are worth the price of admission)— acknowledged my attendance record with a wry smile, saying “You must be a glutton for punishment.” Strangely enough, that was what then-candidate, now MPP John Milloy had said to me when I had turned up at my second all-candidates meeting during the last provincial election campaign. It seemed ungracious and ill-mannered for me to remark on what a sad commentary on our society as a whole his—and Mr. Milloy’s—observation reflected in a general sense. Of course, it had been said at the end of two-and-a-half hours of arduous hair-splitting sophistry when root canal can seem preferable to municipal politics. I demurred, No, I find it all quite interesting, I said. And then added, in all honesty, I don’t envy you guys.
Which is true. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been very glad that it wasn’t me who had to decide whose oxe got gored tonight and whose row got hoed.
But I have to admit that I have often wondered—given the amount of complaining that people do about politics at all levels and jurisdictions—where all the complainers are Monday night. Any Monday night. It’s nice to think that 200-or-so thousand people are all up-to-their eyeballs in critical last-minute work assignments, researching their PhD’s or otherwise enriching their society and our city with their time, their intellect and their attention every Monday night of every week. Of course I hate to think of how many of them are actually doing nothing more important than watching the same Friends or Seinfeld episode for the ninth time, or staring slack-jawed at the latest brain-dead “reality” television program.
Anyway, thank you again for your interest. I’m sorry this wasn’t more edifying or more thorough. I’ll try to make amends by writing something for you of genuine substance—something with some real meat on its bones—as time allows in the future.
Please feel free to run this as an extended letter to the editor or something in one of the early numbers of your publication if you are so inclined.