At the Oct. 12th meeting on the proposed fertilizer from waste project, Lystek executives had the introduction of our Mayor and 40 minutes of uninterrupted air-time at the beginning of the meeting to present their credentials, show slides, tell their story and make their case for why the plant they propose to build is, in their words, “in the best interests of the community.”
The SPIRG team has been tracking public opinion on this proposed project, and on Oct 12 invited members of the audience to fill out a questionnaire with the same questions as the initial survey SPIRG circulated at the first Lystek information meeting.
Fifty-four of the meeting attendees took time to fill in the survey and return it to SPIRG after the meeting. Here are the results:
1. "I am in favour of Southgate Council granting as building permit
for this sludge-to-fertilizer facility."
(a) Strongly agree--0
(b) Somewhat agree--1
(c) Neither agree nor disagree--1
(d) Somewhat disagree--0
(e) Strongly disagree--52
2. "I am concerned that attracting waste-processing industries to
Dundalk will discourage desirable forms of industry from locating in
Dundalk and the surrounding community."
(a) Strongly agree--50
(b) Somewhat agree--0
(c) Neither agree nor disagree --1
(d) Somewhat disagree --2
(e) Strongly disagree --1
3. "Notwithstanding the levels of heavy metal and chemical
contaminants typically contained in sewage sludge, I see the
spreading of fertilizer derived from sludge to be a sustainable
farming practice." (one had no answer marked for number 3.)
(a) Strongly agree--0
(b) Somewhat agree --1
(c) Neither agree nor disagree --4
(d) Somewhat disagree --1
(e) Strongly disagree --47
4. "I believe this facility will contribute positively to the
quality of life in Dundalk and Southgate Township."
(f) Strongly agree--1
(a) Somewhat agree--2
(b) Neither agree nor disagree--0
(c) Somewhat disagree--0
(d) Strongly disagree--51
5. I am a resident of:
(b) Southgate outside of Dundalk--9
(c) Outside of Southgate—4
To be fair, there is sampling bias involved in this data: The people completing the survey were not randomly selected, but rather participated as a result of self-selecting actions - they took the time to attend the public meeting, they formed an opinion (as it turns out, one that was generally independent of the one Lystek officials hoped to invoke) and, they engaged as citizens by responding to the survey.
These behaviors make them, statistically speaking, different than the “average” citizen of Southgate Township. So we don’t wish to represent these numbers as an index of public opinion that can be accurately projected to the entire Township population.
Still, these numbers still tell an important story. Of the 54 respondents, 52 strongly disapprove of a building permit being extended to the proponent. That statistic reveals a strengthening opinion trend within the population of Dundalk and area residents regarding the proponent and their proposed project when compared with the first survey SPIRG conducted following the Sept. 1 meeting.
And, in the eyes of Common Ground, the most significant and useful finding of this survey is not found in the first question, but the second. Out of 54 responses to the proposition: "I am concerned that attracting waste-processing industries to Dundalk will discourage desirable forms of industry from locating in Dundalk and the surrounding community," 50 expressed “strongly agree.”
This reaction reveals a firmly held and broadly-based perception that the location of one kind of business in a town – especially a big controversial waste-processing business in a small town - resets the possibilities for other kinds of desirable businesses to locate themselves in that town.
What kind of desirable businesses might those be? We need look no further than the Township of Southgate website for suggestions such as these:
- · Boutique Hotels, Motels, Small Inns and Bed & Breakfasts
- · Pubs and Restaurants & a Banquet facility
- · Sporting Goods, Bike rentals and Horseback riding
- · Antique shops and Boutiques
- · Destination spa/fitness services
- · Tack or Equestrian Supplies Shops
- · Hunt clubs or camps
- · A fine food family restaurant
- · A casual clothing store
- · A printing & office supply store
- · Micro brewery
- · Bed & Breakfast Accommodations
- · Cheese production
It’s appealing to imagine a Dundalk enhanced with the addition of such businesses. But starting up a business is hard and risky work at the best of times. Given a choice, it seems reasonable that entrepreneurs in consumer-driven enterprises would elect to invest in a community where the local ambiance becomes an attractive marketing attribute of their business identity – not a liability. The survey results underscore this point in the negative: As long as the door remains open to a potential regional economic identity problem hanging over Dundalk’s future like a foul smell, other doors are expected to stay closed.
This acknowledgement of a trade-off – the sense of mutually-exclusive possibilities in regional economic identity - is evidently a different perspective than the one that has been pressed forward insistently over the last half-dozen years by Southgate’s Economic Development Office. It is evidently a different perspective than that of the previous Mayor and Council who in 2009 modified the zoning provisions of the Dundalk industrial park to include waste-processing as an acceptable land use (and did so, without so much as holding a public meeting to consult with the people of Dundalk on this choice). And we take no joy here in observing that this is a different perspective than the one signaled by the majority of our current Councilors who evidently voted to sell land to Lystek.
Has the time not come to ask how can we as a community come to a lasting agreement on this broader question? How can we do so in a way that leads to our public, our non-elected community leaders (of all ages), our elected officials and our paid township staff working together… not at cross-purposes as we have been for years … but together in a common purpose to build a better, more vibrant, more prosperous community? How can we take all the passion and energy and time and money that has gone into both sides of the battling over a succession of waste-focused economic development ideas and get those resources aligned in a way that builds a better community? The answer we propose is a new way of framing the problem.
In our Sept. 1, 2011 interview with Mayor Milne, (also published on www.commonground-spirg.ca
) we touched on the role of public opinion in Council’s decision, and in response he alluded to a present dilemma of leadership. He referenced the perspective that had been coached into him and other members of council by our previous Mayor Lewis. “We’re elected into office to lead, to make decisions – we can’t govern by plebiscite.”
Is this a zero-sum trade-off we must accept? Where the public’s perspective needs to be over-ruled for the greater good of an economic vision or the maintaining of orderly governance? Where the opinion of Southgate Council must prevail against the opinion of the people in the community in order to protect prosperity or the stability of our governing institutions?
In the eyes of Common Ground, too much of our history as a community has been characterized by exactly that conceptual framework. And clearly this way of framing the problem has not been helpful in realizing our potential as a community. For your evidence, look beyond the howls of community protest at the Oct. 12th meeting. Look to the shuttered shops on Dundalk’s main street. Look to the detached cynicism implicit in our municipal election turn-out. Look at the delta between the “waste-centric” economic development vision pressed by the Township over successive administrations and the economic development ideas shared in SPIRG’s World Café – or even the Township website. And as you look forward, ask whether this frame offers any prospect of peace in the ongoing rift that is evident between our Council’s choices and our community’s feelings around the acceptability of waste-focused industry as the driver of our regional economic identity?
How can we move forward from this impasse? For our olive branch we will concede that the public is not reasonably entitled to the expectation that our elected officials will hold a plebiscite on every issue upon which there is a spectrum of opinion within the community. Doing so would be a panacea only if wrong-headed thinking was a phenomenon restricted only to small groups of people. And we know that’s not true. But in exchange, would it be too much to ask Council to concede that the public does have an inviolable right to expect our elected officials, and the staff they guide, to govern their decisions with a sensitivity to all the dimensions of an issue the public cares about. With thoughtfully-designed, carefully researched, evidence-based decision processes conducted in clear public view. And with humility around the possibility that earlier opinions and decisions should occasionally be subject to reexamination?
In that context, we now return to the difference in opinion between our Municipal Government and the respondents to our surveys – to see if we can find a path forward to greater community alignment – one that does not require a winner and a loser - the domination of one group and one perspective by the other.
And here it is. We noted much earlier in the analysis of our survey results that the cohort of respondents should not be understood as statistically “representative” of the broader population of Southgate because they self-selected into the survey through their actions. That bias is actually helpful here.
Because these are the people who mustered the energy to set aside whatever else they were doing to come to public meetings. These are the people who proactively gathered information. These are the people who formed independent opinions. These are the people who took the social risk involved in communicating their perspective. These are the people who were optimistic enough to imagine that filling in that questionnaire might make a difference. Have you noticed the pattern yet? Those are all characteristics of the rare sub-species of humans we call “entrepreneurs.”
Let’s ask ourselves – just where will we find those potential entrepreneurs to start businesses in Dundalk? Where will we find those people with the energy, and skills and optimism, and risk-taking, independent attitude who might launch a business in Dundalk? Where will we find the people who might open a B&B or a restaurant, the people who might set up a shop selling hunting or riding gear, the people who might start an artisanal food business? Is it possible some of them are already here? Clearly, we found proactive people with a genuine passion for this community - non-cynical people who get engaged, think independently, take risks, and have an optimistic outlook. That’s the behavioral profile of our survey cohort. And whether or not any of these people ultimately do launch a business here, could anyone dispute that such a strong pattern of opinion among people who fit this behavioral profile predicts how other entrepreneurs would assess a similar bank of questions? That would be a fool’s bet.
So, we respectfully submit our research results to the Southgate Council – not as a petition, not as an index of the present political discontent, but as an index of marketplace opinion relevant to long-range economic development. Our survey respondents have demonstrated behavioral traits that are associated with entrepreneurs everywhere. Proactivity, engagement, self-confidence, risk-taking, optimism. And more importantly, this particular cluster of people are already here in our community – and evidently committed to it.
Any reasonable person looking at these results would conclude that this cluster of people would be discouraged from starting a desirable new business in Dundalk as long as the possibility of waste-processing industries remains part of the permitted zoning for the Dundalk industrial park. So for Council to respond to this data is not to sacrifice prosperity or invite political chaos by giving in to a mob. This is not a matter of one policy opinion versus another; this is a matter of market analysis, based on new objective, quantified and compelling evidence. Residents of this community, who are otherwise wired like entrepreneurs, are unlikely to start a new business here as long as the community continues to wrestle with the spectre of waste-focused businesses.
There is no shame, no loss of face, no breakdown in order implied for Council in revising the zoning of the Industrial park in response to this evidence. If Council removes waste-processing as a permitted use of land in the Dundalk industrial park – Council is cleaning up a problem it has inherited – a hastily passed bylaw, enacted by a previous administration with too little consideration of ramifications. By modifying permitted use, Council can start to heal an old (and presently acute) rift between Council and community, and restore community trust and respect.
Of course this decision rests entirely with Council. All we ask is that the historical frame for such decisions be recognized for what it is – a barrier to clear thought, effective action, and community cohesion. When the public’s perspective on regional economic identity is intrinsically connected to the prospect for new business creation – there is no validity to the argument that the public’s perspective needs to be over-ruled for the greater good of economic development. And neither is there any validity to the argument that the opinion of Southgate Council and Staff must prevail against the opinion of non-cynical people in the community in order to defend the trust and respect that give stability and authority to our governing institutions. In fact, the very opposite is true.