It all ended so badly – the tone perhaps worse than the ultimate decision. Following 10 years of diligent effort and compromise, a citizen’s group from London, Ontario learned in harsh finality that, for all the trumpeting of the need for citizen engagement, politicians with private agendas have little time for it.

At issue was a historic area of the city called Reservoir Hill – the site of a battle in the War of 1812 and elevation that perhaps produces the finest view of the city. For a decade citizens had struggled to keep a developer from placing a 12-storey apartment on the site that didn’t conform to OMB decisions. They had been consistently supported by previous councils, citizen’s groups and the Ontario Municipal Board. Each time the developer came back with the same non-conforming site plan and was, each time, turned back by council and the OMB. But with the arrival of a new council, historic precedent and thousands of hours of work were ground to dust. Staff recommendations were ignored. And worst of all, a process of engagement, planning and appeal that had been launched by the city and approved by repeated councils, was put down. Citizens had been asked to engage. They did, refreshingly so. And in the end they were rebuked.

This week was the final open public participation session on the new council’s direction, and for almost everyone present it was a clear indication of how far modern democracy has fallen. When citizens faced the council committee, there was an eloquence in the air that came from years of preparation, struggle, and, yes, learned compromise. I sat among them, taking notes, and realizing this was the kind of stuff I had been writing about for years – citizens doing their diligent part to co-labour for the community with their elected representatives. It was, in a word, inspiring.

But all hopes of politicians sitting down and reasoning with their citizens ended the moment the public portion concluded. Following tedious and small-minded arguments from councillors, the vote was taken and the citizens were administered a coup de gras. The vote, when it came, was like an afterthought. It was the moments leading up to it that brought a humiliation to the democratic experience that I have rarely seen.

While the chair of the committee did an admirable job at ensuring the public was heard and heard well, you had the impression the deal was already done.  The acting mayor at one point took to upbraiding those in the observation gallery, reminding them that even if they had signed petitions and made a spirited defense, politicians like himself often felt disinclined to listen. The worst moment for me was when one councillor – a veteran who should have known better – worked the wording so it looked like it was the city staff’s fault. From the inception of the process years previous, staff had been against the development. Only when the new council instructed it to find a way to make it work did the staff comply. The councillor, in refusing to face the issue head-on, stated that the committee was merely following the lead of staff. The professionals on staff took the heat and the embarrassment of the specious argument; the councillor himself seemed incapable of accepting responsibility.

In many ways it was just like my years in Ottawa, watching how the House of Commons was demeaned by politicians capable of losing all respectability. But not once in any of that time did an MP, minister, or PM take to castigating those citizens seated in the gallery – not once. This week, in just one meeting, I saw it occur on numerous occasions.

The meeting went on like this for five hours. When it was over, those of us in the gallery shuffled to the elevators. There were tears, anger, and worst of all, defeatist language. “What was the point?” one woman stated in the elevator. “All those years when council, the staff and the province supported us – what was it for?” I overheard a man at the front door say, “I didn’t fight in the Second World War to be treated this way. I will never frequent this building again.”

There you have it: citizens engaging at their best and certain political representatives moping at their worst. In a previous time, John Stuart Mill described why this happens:

“The mischief happens when, instead of calling forth the activity of individuals and bodies, government substitutes its own activity for theirs … it bids them stand aside and does their work for them. A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they be more docile instruments in its hands, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”

This week a defiant developer, consistently desiring more than permitted, beat back a decade of progressive work, a number of councils and OMB decisions, and ultimately a grouping of citizens that took its responsibility seriously. Is this what is to come of citizen engagement?

Reservoir Hill – a hill a number of dedicated Londoners chose worthy of dying upon. They refused to become the “small men” in acquiescence Mills was referring to, content to leave that diminutive description to many on the political stage beneath them. The issue is not about the hill itself, but the humiliation the people went through in defense of it. Democracy has nothing left in its toolbox when it wills to descend to that level.