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Tremblay's Remote Control

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Issue: 32 Section: Environment Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: democracy

December 2, 2005

Tremblay's Remote Control

How City Hall's 'closed bureaucratic culture' continues to drive Montreal away from sustainability

by Van Ferrier

According to critics, Tremblay is not listening to sustainable solutions that Montreal citizens want.
Citizens in countries like Canada are suffering from the effects of ill-planned cities and environmental degradation, says Executive Director of UN-Habitat Anna Tibaijuka leading up to the third session of the World Urban Forum to be held in Vancouver next spring. At the heart of this crisis, she says, is a failure to consult and to allow the full participation of ordinary people in the development of cities.

Montreal, the city Prime Minister Paul Martin picked to host this year's International Climate Talks on behalf of Canada, is a poignant illustration of Ms. Tibaijuka's message, according to Ray Tomalty who teaches Urban Planning at McGill University and runs a research institute on urban issues in Montreal.

Tomalty explains that on January 1, 2006 Montreal's Mayor Gerald Tremblay will take control of the new Agglomeration Council that was created by the province of Quebec to manage common services such as police and fire departments, water treatment facilities and public transit for Montreal Island municipalities.

The coverage of these services will include several suburban communities that voted to de-merge from the city. But rather than achieving the autonomy from what these fifteen communities perceived as a highly centralized Montreal City Hall, the de-mergers have actually increased dependency on the Mayor's executive committee.

Tomalty says these communities were hoping to become independent cities, "But got a dictator and more taxes instead."

Rather than allowing all Montreal city councillors to sit on the Agglomeration Council – which will manage the taxes of most residents in the metropolitan area – Mayor Tremblay appointed his handpicked executive committee to administer it. The Quebec government recently approved this move.

Richard Bergeron – leader of a new force in local politics called Projet Montreal – says this is what Montrealers have come to expect from Tremblay's style of governance.

"The executive committee sits behind closed doors under the Tremblay administration, and a culture of secrecy reigns at City Hall," says Bergeron. "Our mayor would like to transpose this type of governance to the Agglomeration Council. This tactic is intended to muzzle the opposition."

Incumbent Montreal city Councillor Alan de Sousa is responsible for sustainable development on Mayor Tremblay's executive committee. He says his team has moved Montreal forward and will continue to do so with a 20-year plan that will commit the city of Montreal to clear sustainable development objectives. Bergeron has doubts Tremblay will follow through on these commitments.

Mayor Tremblay, who was re-elected for a second term November 6 built his political support in the suburbs of Montreal by promising the de-mergers. The Mayor continues to maintain that support by investing in infrastructure, which according to Projet Montreal makes suburban life more comfortable with new highways and bridges at the expense of the overall health and well-being of urban residents.

"For 60 years, Montreal has been locked into a dead-end development path that has put us in a very vulnerable position," says Bergeron. "But we must wake up from this 'American dream' attitude that is keeping us from achieving our goals."

Bergeron says the Mayor's agenda goes against what most Montrealers want. "Citizens want to live in complete communities that are healthy, well maintained, safe and clean," he says. "By building houses in clusters around public transportation hubs, we can minimize traffic, noise and pollution with energy efficient dwelling units that conserve heat and electricity."

Public transport-oriented development is precisely the kind of innovative initiatives that Bergeron – an urban planner with twenty years of experience in Quebec and abroad – is proposing for Montreal. It is also the foundation upon which Scandinavian countries learned to develop participatory local governments that are some of the most accountable and sustainable in the world.

Montrealers had the rare opportunity to discuss municipal environmental issues with city officials during the municipal election environmental debate. High expectations were placed on de Sousa who was forced to defend both his administration's environmental record and what Tomalty calls City Hall's "closed bureaucratic culture" that has become notorious among Canadian cities for lacking transparency and failing to encourage citizens to participate in the democratic process.

"We are facing monumental challenges that require a completely different mindset," Bergeron says during the debate. "We see Montreal slipping behind many other cities in North America that have made the step towards sustainable planning through better governance."

Residents of Vancouver for example are finding that the Greater Vancouver Regional District – the regional authority that oversees key services in the greater Vancouver area and facilitates provincial cooperation on common policy issues – has given them a solid foundation upon which new projects and policies are being built with a vision for sustainability.

So why hasn't Montreal achieved similar results? Tomalty says its because despite having a regional authority that includes 64 municipalities, the Metropolitan Community of Montreal (Communauté Métropolitaine de Montréal, or CMM) is not accountable to the citizens it is supposed to represent. Vancouver city officials, on the other hand, have encouraged greater public participation via public consultations, ideas fairs, and other visible commitments to democratic inclusion.

With Kyoto delegates in town from November 28 to December 9, the biggest challenge for Montreal's commitment to sustainable development is not whether it can play host to important international meetings on climate change. Montreal city officials and citizens should be asking themselves how they could make sound contributions to improving health and well-being by improving the democratic accountability of City Hall.

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