Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

At least city’s priorities show clarity

When St. Catharines councillors set their priorities following the 2011 municipal elections we were pleasantly surprised to find that we could understand what they were saying. Whether it all made sense or not, however, was another thing.

BY CHRIS SIMPSON

LoremIpsumOn March 7, St. Catharines city councillors held a special meeting to “identify” their priorities. While I lack details on how this “identification” process works, I envision it as being similar to a police lineup.

In any event, they picked out 10 suspect priorities.

I can express neither elation nor dismay at the merits of these priorities; I can only be encouraged by their clarity. Politicians, in a never-ending quest to avoid coherency, usually employ meaningless stock phrases to say what they don’t mean.

When “push comes to shove,” and in order to “send the right message,” they “think outside the box” to “embrace change, challenge, and/or diversity,” while “working towards an equitable solution for all.” Of course, “in the final analysis,” if something they say causes “vigorous debate,” they can always “walk it back.”

It’s kind of a political “Lorem Ipsum.”

Lorem Ipsum is the block of text used by publishers as a placeholder until the finished copy can be set. Because the text is a random selection of Latin words, it looks impressive, but is completely meaningless.

The concept is tailor-made for politics.

To be fair, being a politician is a lot like getting arrested on Law & Order: anything you say can, and will, be held against you. Being able to speak without saying anything is a survival trait.

Consider four years ago, when councillors last met to identify priorities. Five priorities were chosen at that meeting: “enhance communications,” “foster a vibrant downtown,” “develop strategic prosperity corridors,” “provide value for tax dollars” and “pursue consolidated long-term planning.”

The irony implicit in their first priority may even have been intentional; after all, when you say you want to “enhance communications,” it’s pretty obvious that you’re going about it all wrong. Their second priority, to “foster a vibrant downtown,” was completely meaningless, but it’s still a relief to know they chose that over the alternative, to “foster a dead and deserted downtown”: it means the present condition wasn’t planned or anything.

For their third priority, councillors agreed to “develop strategic prosperity corridors,” another phrase devoid of real meaning, but still preferable over its opposite: to “develop strategic poverty corridors.”

Their fourth and fifth priorities formed a matched set. In their fourth priority, councillors showed their willingness to embrace new ideas by providing “value for tax dollars.” This was put into immediate effect by their fifth priority, to “hold more meetings about stuff” ( “pursue consolidated long-term planning”).

But, this year was different.

Not only did councillors increase the number of identified priorities from five to 10 (practice really does make perfect), but the priorities so identified are actually understandable.

How practical they are, and how much sense they make, is a judgment I’ll leave to those more suited to making it.

Me? I can’t figure out why they think they have 10 priorities when 11 are clearly listed.

In the mathematics used by non-politicians, 11 items are 11 items, and calling two of them “three” doesn’t change that. Priority 3(a) is to “revitalize” the downtown by building a new civic square, while priority 3(b) is “increased greening.” (There is, perhaps, a certain commonality in that both could be listed under the heading “Field of Dreams.”)

Nor do I understand how they can build a new arena, a new civic square, and a new Black History Museum, while still honouring their fifth priority to “avoid new projects.” No, it’s best if I leave others to criticize or praise the councillors. I’m just happy I could understand what they said.

Sort of.

Originally published in the St. Catharines Standard, 2011

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