Monday, 11 May 2009

Leadership and Democracy: Getting the Balance Right between Political Power and People Power

This year will be the one for municipal elections in Montreal, and it already all sorts of players getting involved. The current administration’s popularity is in decline following a number of conflict-of-interest revelations. But over and above mistakes and mis-steps, the very form of city governance is in question.

Last week at a conference on effective cities, a number of figures called for more centralized government. Since the merger of several suburbs on the island with the larger city in 2002, some responsibility for decision-making has been given to borough councils. Critics say this has led to dithering and lack of control, while others point out that for the first time residents have a large say in local zoning and other decisions.

The municipal party which is most adamant in its support of participatory government, is Projet Montréal. Nevertheless its founder and leader Richard Bergeron published a long and surprising piece in Saturday’s Le Devoir about Jean Drapeau, the mayor of Montreal who brought us the Métro, Expo and the Olympics.

Drapeau was a martinet who governed by decree. He began as a reformer, taking on organized crime and general tolerance of prostitution and late night clubs. He rapidly became a civic visionary who brooked no argument: the October Crisis of 1970 was manipulated by him (and some say, instigated by him) to win 52 of 52 seats on the city council. He didn’t commission environmental impact reports, he built and worried about finances later.

Bergeron more than gives Drapeau his due: Montreal would not be the interesting, walkable city it is today were it not for the Métro, he points out. There is an up-side to governing without opposition because you can get things done. The problem comes when what you want to do isn’t wise—in other words, the classic problem of the philosopher king.

I don’t think Bergeron condemned this weakness of Drapeau strongly enough, but it is good to be reminded how complicated good government is. Strong leaders or strong people? How to reconcile them?

As I prepare for my trip to Portugal to research another book, I find myself face to face with that problem. Was the Marques de Pombal, who rebuilt Lisbon after the devastating earthquake of 1755, a dictator or a visionary? When did Salazar, brought into office as a reformer to make sense of a chaotic situation, step over the line to become a despot? How to give leaders the power to get things done while safeguarding democratic discourse and civil society?

More later: this is not a problem that will be answered this lovely morning, even though one can see as far as the horizon in the clear air.

1 comment:

lagatta à montréal said...

Oh dear. Especially considering that while Drapeau got the métro built, he also destroyed our extensive tram network, following the car-centric lead of most other North American cities - not Toronto, though.

quote: "Jean Drapeau entreprit aussi la réalisation de ce qui allait devenir le réseau routier supérieur de Montréal: élargissement des boulevards Dorchester et Henri-Bourrassa et de la rue Lajeunesse, construction de l'autoroute Métropolitaine, etc. Vu de l'oeil d'aujourd'hui, les débuts de cet effort d'adaptation de la ville à l'automobile laissent un goût mi-amer. Tout d'abord parce qu'on ne pouvait élargir un boulevard tel Dorchester sans démolir les bâtiments riverains. Pour Drapeau, cela se fit sans remords puisqu'il s'agissait d'«enlever des laideurs de taudis». Cela impliquait aussi de retirer les tramways des rues de Montréal. Ce maire Drapeau de la première période était à l'évidence subjugué par les transformations engagées depuis dix ans déjà dans les grandes villes états-uniennes".

Nowadays the lovely old buildings on Dorchester (now René-Lévesque) would have been valued and rehabilitated. Perhaps not all visitors to your blog visit - where there are many telling before and after shots.

So THAT's what happened to Lajeunesse - the ugliest street in my area. It is lined with ugly apartment blocks that have become slummy, while the older triplexes and duplexes in Villeray - and the sweet little shoebox houses - have been spruced up.

You might want to contrast Bergeron's piece with a recent column by Pierre Foglia, who tends to view do-nothing mayors as a blessing in disguise.

I can see the dilemma, because improving walkability, cyclability and bringing back the trams will take political will, but I strongly disagree that one can "faire l'économie de la démocratie".

Bergeron's party is the only one I'd vote for on the municipal level, but perhaps his background makes his vision rather too technocratic. I hope some other high-profile candidates with more of a background in citizen/community movements will come on board and round out Projet Montréal.

Like the walkability espoused by Jane Jacobs, our exceptional cyclability by North American standards was mostly won by grassroots citizen action, by the many creative actions of Le Monde à bicyclette.