Participatory democracy has become a byword for many reformists, especially in the areas of local government and housing. Here in Toronto the tenant participation system in Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) is being held up as an example of participatory democracy.
Participatory democracy is better called 'direct democracy'. It is government by the public in a bottom up and consensus mode, in contrast to the representative model of democracy. In no way is the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) 'tenant manipulation system' a model for direct or participatory democracy.
real direct democracy
The idea of a direct or participatory democracy has been around long before they started using it in Porto Allegre, Brazil. Whenever the real people of a society get a chance to organise their own governance they seem to come up with a pyramid structure; lower bodies choose delegates to higher bodies, on up to the top.
There are no political parties or exact proportionality between districts, because decisions are by consensus, not by majority vote.
This was how the local 'soviets' worked in the early stages of the bolshevik revolution. This was how the old Yugoslavia worked; after Tito it converted to a west European style proportional system. Castro's Cuba is run by a hierarchy of assemblies based on community councils. Chavez of Venezuela is in the process of building such a system.
Within the time spans, geographic areas, and areas of authority in which they have been allowed to function, direct democracies have done well. But this system was killed by the Stalinists, and was supervised by the communist party in Yugoslavia, as it is in Cuba. The famous participatory councils in Brazilian cites have only limited authority over a part of the city's budget.
the big participation
About ten years back, when Cityhome and Metro housing were merged, a tenant representation system was mandated. Evelyn Murialdo was hired to bring about such a system. It is clear she had a 'Porto Allegre' type of system in mind from the start.
Cityhome already had a functioning tenant council based on delegates from each building in the city. There was a problem of corrupt practise among some of the tenant 'leaders'; resources diverted to personal use, a scam in which 'building reps' 'helped' illiterate and mentally challenged people with the complex formula for calculating their rent.
Metro housing was rabidly hostile to the idea of tenant representation, barely tolerating an 'advisory council' of delegates from each building. Anyone trying to organise a tenant's association in one of their buildings was hounded out of their home.
the big manipulation
Murialdo first disrupted efforts by former Cityhome tenants to maintain their system by incorporating a tenant association independent of the landlord. She then persuaded the Metro housing management to fund a consultation process. Every tenant who was interested enough to come to downtown Toronto could 'participate' in designing a participation system.
The process was plainly steered in a certain direction by Murialdo. She now strongly denies this and has long broken with those tenants who were her accomplices. The basic method was to put several options on the blackboard, but put the option they wanted first. Then the stooges would talk in out until there was no time to consider anything else, and the rest of the people present went along with it like sheep.
the big dysfunction
The result was the classic pyramid, with each building, whether 25 units or 400 units, electing one delegate. These delegates went to the local councils, corresponding to management units the company had already created. These councils sent two delegates to an area council, again corresponding to the company's own reorganisation. Each of these sent two to a city wide council.
There was no mechanism for consensus; it was majority rule and very unfair for large buildings. It was unworkable; anyone reaching the city wide committee had to get elected as a building delegate, then as an area representative, and then as a city wide council member. This was almost a full time job with no official compensation.
People interested in city wide issues but not in local issues were shut out. There was no mention of building councils; these single representatives could be the elected dictators over their buildings. Anyone at these consultations who tried to point out these problems was rebuffed.
the big split
These councils had no money or staff of their own. They were run by 'Aunt Evelyn's' social workers. The people who had the edge in being elected as tenant reps were those who had experience as management appointed tenant toadies.
The first 'tenant rep' elections were a fiasco. Many elections were by acclamation. In some buildings no candidate could be found. There were instances of blatant ballot box stuffing; in one building the residents revolted, stopped the election and forced a new one by proper rules. In other instances, the housing company directors ignored appeals for new elections.
Most of those elected as representatives lacked skills and confidence, and were easily bulldozed by the same people who had rammed this framework through the consultation. The latter soon created an executive committee to further concentrate their power.
They expected to profit by their new positions; they were used to being rewarded for being the management's toadies. Most also expected to be able to direct more resources to their own buildings. When they realised that Murialdo and the new head of Toronto Housing, Derek Ballantyne, would not allow this, they turned viciously against them.
the big conflict
Murialdo was confused. She wondered aloud what she could do about people who will do anything to get power.
Murialdo could not understand that her system failed because of the deep rooted culture within Toronto housing; contempt for the tenants, passivity of the tenants, and corruption and opportunism in the tenant's 'leaders'.
The tenant's 'executive committee' successfully lobbied city council, over the hostility of mayor Lastman, to mandate two tenant members of the new TCHC board. But Ballantyne and Murialdo refused to let this tenant executive choose them; city council's 'appointments committee' has chosen them.
In 2002,Toronto Housing absorbed Ontario Housing. This was the opportunity to arbitrarily 'redesign' the tenant participation system, slicing off the top levels. Since then, each of the twenty-seven CHU's (Community Housing Units) within the new TCHC's decentralised structure is isolated from the others and powerless.
The tenants on the board of directors of TCHC are required as a condition of their office to work for the interests of TCHC, not for its tenants. It is interesting that these interests are never defined, especially since TCHC is a corporation with the City of Toronto as its sole shareholder, and is funded mainly by taxes.
Here is the problem with any 'participatory democracy', especially a tenant participation system; those who supply the money, and have ultimate control of the environment of those 'participating', will remain in control. Any delegate or representative will be in a conflict of interests.
As well, any system exists within a culture, which can be changed only slowly. Now an article is needed about the ways of resolving these conundrums.