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Pondering the two-way relationship that is civic duty

As Woolwich councillors agreed last week, good fences make good neighbours. That’s particularly true when the fences arrive ahead of the neighbours.

It’s fairly recent township policy that potentially disruptive additions such as fences and sidewalks get installed in new subdivisions before the houses go in; that way, potential buyers know what they’re getting into, and there are fewer grounds for complaints.

Township officials are well aware that trying to make changes to existing neighbourhoods is fraught with perils. And they got a reminder of that last week during the latest issue involving fences, a debate the surfaced precisely because the municipality made an exception and allowed the developer to build homes adjacent to a woodlot and walkway before doing the fencing.

In this case, the homeowners came to council with legitimate concerns. Township, though late in acting, needs to stick to the policy, despite creating problems that didn’t need to exist. That said, there is now an expectation the township will ensure the side-by-side fencing won’t create an unsightly and unmaintained gap. Woolwich may expect the adjacent property owners will maintain municipal land, but they’re not obligated to do so. Therein lies a debate about civic responsibility.

Homeowners do typically look after municipal property, as boulevards and rights-of-way are looked after when lawn work is being done, not to mention the you’ve-got-no-choice issue of sidewalk snow-clearing. The township has also been asking residents to help nurture trees that are on municipal land, not private. There may be grounds to challenge such expectations given that municipalities do a lot of asking – or taking, where taxes are concerned – and very little in the way of giving.

There’s a principle at stake here beyond civic duty.

Such debates are an indication of our increasing isolation in a system of governance that is increasingly undemocratic and does less and less for citizens. Politicians, bureaucrats and public-sector workers at every level are seen as more intent on their own salaries, perks and entitlement that actually serving the public. Civic spirit is supposed to be a two-way street, and when that falls apart, it’s easier to see where people become less enthusiastic.

In this most recent case, which also involves staving off encroachment problems in which homeowners have in the past been taking as well as giving, the township is again of the opinion it’s the responsibility of adjacent homeowners to maintain municipal property.

Blame for the faltering legitimacy of government can be laid squarely on the shoulders of politicians and bureaucrats everywhere. When it comes to local and regional government, many of us can’t be bothered to vote – typically, fewer than a third of us bother to show up – but that doesn’t mean we don’t notice that service levels suffer even as taxes increase and growth reduces the quality of life even as it pads the coffers … and wallets of those who are supposed to be working for the public, rather than the other way around.

Which brings us to something as visible as weedy and overgrown municipal properties. Unkempt boulevards, roadsides and parks are a very visible reminder that the kind of work that used to be done is now not, even as we pay more and more to those who are supposed to keep our communities in good repair.

At the heart of the matter, ignoring the basics – cutting the grass, picking up litter and keeping facilities clean – makes for bad optics, reinforcing the notion that officials have their priorities wrong, attuned more to their convenience than public service. That leads to the grumbling about looking after property that belongs to a municipality that doesn’t look after its citizens. And a growing disconnect, ideally leading to citizens hitting the resent button.



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