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Back to school 

The court ruling reversing the St. Pat’s-Alexandra sale is a lesson in how we run the city, and how we don’t.

Monday, Supreme Court justice David MacAdam overturned the city's sale of the former St. Pat's-Alexandra school site to Jono Developments. The ruling is a victory for three non-profit groups in the north end that want a chance to put together a proposal for the property.

Already I fear that we're learning all the wrong lessons from the incident. It doesn't take much for this town to fall back on its worst instincts, to castigate poor people and the groups that serve them for imposing unreasonable demands on polite society. And sure enough, the ink wasn't yet dry on MacAdam's decision when I heard the first reference to "those damned non-profits."

But rather than taking refuge in our ugliest traditions, how 'bout we instead try to understand what went wrong and, more importantly, why. With that knowledge, maybe we can figure out how to better govern ourselves.

There's a lesson explicitly stated in MacAdam's ruling: city hall has got to follow its own procedures. Council can't make policy on the fly, willy-nilly, contradicting itself for expediency's sake.

Underlying that obvious point, however, is the interplay in how we perceive our government on the one hand, and issues of social justice on the other.

Let's talk about city government. For the past couple of decades we've moved further and further away from the view that city government is, well, government. Instead, there's this perverse desire to turn it into big business, a corporation. City council is supposed to be a board of directors, and people run for office saying they're going to "run city hall like a business."

To that end, we reduce the number of councillors lest they talk about stuff that matters to regular people, and we make sure council does nothing more than rubber stamp decisions made by ever-more-highly paid execs. Then we hire in a slick CAO from Toronto who knows how big multi-national corporate boardrooms work, but not so much the hoops a single parent has to jump through to get the kids scheduled in after-school programs, or how a shift worker has to walk for an hour after he misses the last connecting bus or that the community might value solar water heating even if it comes at a dollar expense to city hall.

In the new view of government there are no citizens, no communities, no messy social concerns. Those people out there are simply customers of the city, atomized individuals who buy services from city hall, just as shoppers buy laundry soap from Procter & Gamble. All that matters is "efficiency," meaning the shortest-sighted quarterly return on a financial spreadsheet. And we'll change the pricing system with something called "tax reform," so that the owner of a Young Avenue mansion isn't charged any more for garbage pickup than a Spryfield apartment dweller, because after all, millionaires and unemployed alike pay the same price for a box of Tide at Sobeys.

What we lose in this new view of government is any sense of collective social obligation through government, which admittedly wasn't helped when the 1990s Savage government decided the city shouldn't deal with social concerns at all.

So when the city dealt with St. Pat's, it saw itself as simply a corporation making a quick deal on a piece of real estate. (MacAdam ruled that the city even failed on that count, as it illegally sold the school for less than it's worth, but that's an issue for another day.)

Those people out there--- the neighbourhood being squeezed on the one end of Gottingen Street by hip condos and on the other by real estate speculators anticipating the shipyard contract, the people who have seen their monthly rent increase by $100 and more recently? "Screw 'em," is the new view. They can buy their city services somewhere else, maybe Clayton Park, maybe Truro, if they think they can get a better deal.

There aren't any easy answers in the wake of the St. Pat's decision. Maybe the non-profits can put together a workable proposal for the school. Maybe not. Even if they're successful, how will we deal with the new empty storefronts on Gottingen Street? How do we make sure residents aren't priced out of the area?

I don't have the answers. I do know, however, we won't even ask the questions unless we treat people in the community as citizens, and not as mere customers.

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