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.