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August 26, 2009

Burlington - An easy ride for politicians

Hussein Hamdani

Hussein HamdaniI used to think that the toughest job in the world was to be a Hamilton politician, and the easiest job in the world was to be a Burlington politician.

You may ask why I take such extreme polar positions for two neighbouring cities in southern Ontario. 

The reason is simple.  A Hamilton politician must face the scrutiny of litany of journalist and media personalities at the Spectator, local community newspapers, couple local radio stations and CHCH-TV.

Everything a Hamilton politician does or does not do is scrutinized, analyzed, critiqued and often condemned. Whenever a city counselor makes a bonehead decision, all of us know about it through the various media.

The same is not the case in Burlington.  In Burlington, the politicians have an easy ride. Burlington is a smaller city, so there are less media alternatives and journalists available. The actions of politicians are rarely reported on.  One is more likely to see the picture of the mayor or a city counselor cutting the ribbon for the grand opening of a new coffee shop, then to read a report about council decisions.

I have been critical of the Burlington Post, the only local, community paper because most of the paper is filled with advertisements and inserts, and the stories that they do carry are often about kitty cats that were missing from home but returned after some time, or some local high school sports team that made it to the provincial quarter-finals. In other words, they are fluffy, feel-good stories that neither hold elected officials to account or inform the readership on a deeper level about a serious social issue.

The fact that Burlington politicians get such an easy ride might be one explanation as to why incumbent politicians rarely lose an election. 

Once you have been elected in Burlington (does not matter if we are talking about municipal, provincial or federal politics), you are assured a job for life.

The only elections that are really contested are when the incumbent retires or resigns.  Burlingtonians have had the same city counselors for years with no turnover. When it comes to municipal elections, voter apathy is high, and turnout out is low.

However, recently, Jason Misner, a reporter for the Post ran a piece that stated that the city has chosen an American-made brick for its performing arts center despite an offer from a local manufacturer Hanson Brick.

Throw in a reported $121,000 cost savings for using Hanson bricks and another $100,000 in extra materials being offered for free by Hanson, and you have a good ol’ fashion political controversy.  In a time of Buy Americanism and an economic slowdown, hearing a story that suggests city council preferred a more expensive foreign manufacturer to a local one will ignite the passions of all citizens.

By the Post’s own admission, the level of response from Burlingtonians shocked it.  The paper was inundated with letters to the editor and opinion pieces. 

After years and years of writing about cats stuck in trees (which garnered minimal reaction), the paper ventured into some real investigative journalism and was not fully prepared for the results. City councilors were equally unprepared for the scrutiny and they found themselves scrambling to extinguish this controversy.

I do not know enough about the particular situation to comment on city council’s decision. 

The point is not one particular decision’s merits or flaws, but rather an encouragement to all local journalists to ask difficult questions from our elected officials to keep them honest and hold them to task with respect to their decisions.

If journalists do their job, the state of our democracy will improve, citizens will be more engaged and no one will think that taking on the honourable role of being an elected representative will be an easy ride.

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