Organized chaos

Suddenly, people in the room felt a great deal of tension. A man rose from his seat in the middle of the auditorium. He cleared his throat. He appeared to muster his courage in front of several hundred others in the audience and a platform of political dignitaries. He looked to the moderator and began to speak.

“I am a taxpayer in Scarborough,” he began, “and I see the Scarborough subway extension coming, but I have a serious question…”

At precisely that moment, in the corner of the hall some sort of air compressor or ventilation pump clicked into gear. And the gush of air and the grinding sound of its motor all but drowned out the sound of the man about to ask the dignitaries present that serious question. For the rest of us – journalists, other taxpayers, and average citizens attending the meeting – the man’s serious question was all but lost. And I thought, “Why would the organizers of such an important event as this choose a room as inadequate as this? And, why wouldn’t they have a microphone for that man to ask his question?”

Ironically, the public meeting this week, entitled “Better Transit for Scarborough,” which was to address one of the most crucial issues in the history of transit in the Greater Toronto Area – Toronto City Council’s final decision “Yes” or “No” on funding of the Scarborough TTC subway extension – was in many ways a bust. It happened Monday night at a community centre near Ellesmere and Markham.

And in just about every respect, I thought, the organizers made all the wrong decisions in staging it. You’d think with as much at stake as the future of public transit for about 600,000 people in the GTA (as well as those of us beyond in Durham Region), organizers could have planned things better. But the ill-timed gush of air and motor start-up were only two of a number of interruptions, distractions and shortcomings of the evening.

Things began on the wrong foot, when the organizers, Scarborough Community Renewal Organization (SCRO), opened the doors of the auditorium at the Centennial Recreation Centre. Volunteers still raced about setting up petitions, posters, pamphlets, tables, chairs and microphones.

It seemed awfully last minute. Better to get all that behind-the-scenes stuff done long before anybody entered the room, I thought. Indeed, they might have chosen a better room. Bigger would have been better. It wasn’t long before they were turning people away at the door.

“We’ll be getting underway in about 15 minutes, folks,” the moderator kept saying at one of the few microphones. Which stretched to 20 and then 30 minutes, partly because when the media arrived, everybody wanted to interview the principal spokesman, Mayor John Tory. But he wasn’t introduced until well into the program.

There were testimonials, greetings and a series of not very well-informed introductions before the mayor spoke. And just before the organizers took questions from the floor, a city planner got up and unveiled the renderings, scheduling and costs involved in the planned subway/SmartTrack/LRT network. I thought he should have been first, so that everybody could visualize the thing!

Mayor Tory tried his level best to get things back on track, if you will. He reviewed a bit of the history of discourse over transit in the east end of Toronto. He lamented the indecision and what he called “the fighting of old battles,” so that the city could get on with delivering modern transit to more than 25 per cent of Toronto’s citizens. He talked about making Scarborough a magnet for investment, jobs and population growth with his three-way plan.

Eventually, the moderator, on one of only two microphones in the room, lectured the audience about decorum, respect and the order of speakers. Then, he invited people to rise where they stood and ask questions. Well, the room didn’t have the acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle, so most of the public questions went unheard.

And if the member of the public prefaced his or her question with a comment, none of it could be heard either. Which brought calls of, “Can’t hear!” or “What was the question?” from all over the auditorium.

Then, when legitimate points arose, such as: Would the subway extension be built simultaneously with the SmartTrack and LRT? Was there budget in the new transit plan for Wheel-Trans? And why wouldn’t there be a subway stop at Scarborough General Hospital? … well, nobody could hear, and all that did was raise the temperature of an already anxiety-charged room about the entire issue.

I couldn’t help thinking, in a community as sophisticated as Scarborough, where the issue has been batted about for years, and when everyone needed to feel that his/her view mattered, that all the basics for a successful public meeting had been ignored.

All the organizers needed to do was consult Robert’s Rules about public meeting structure and protocol. But then maybe compressor motors weren’t invented in 1876 when Henry Martyn Robert wrote his guidebook. Or microphones, for that matter.

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