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councils tank farm vote has plato rolling in his grave

Sometimes democracy just doesn't work. While it's justifiably lauded today as the most righteous form of government, that wasn't always the case.

Sometimes democracy just doesn’t work.

While it’s justifiably lauded today as the most righteous form of government, that wasn’t always the case.

Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who helped lay much of the groundwork for Western political philosophy, hated democracy. He labelled it one of the worst forms of government, second only to tyranny.

Not that it’s a good idea to take the advice of a 2,500-year-old aristocratic pedophile at face value, but he makes some good points.

There’s a reason Plato’s Republic is still required reading for every political science student.

Plato worried that democracy, with its focus on liberty and egalitarianism, would lead to disorder - that the wants and desires of the individual would trump the needs of the state.

Sitting through Monday night’s city council meeting, it seems Plato may have been onto something.

In a 4-3 vote, city council decided to put off an amendment to the Official Community Plan that would have paved the way to clean up the old tank farm.

For the three councillors not facing election next month, the amendment was a no-brainer.

Who could be against getting the ball moving on this long-overdue remediation project?

Apparently the Hillcrest Community Association is.

“We feel that there has not been enough information provided about this project,” said Jean-Paul Molgat, the association’s president.

It’s a valid concern, or at least it would be if the OCP amendment allowed work to take place. It doesn’t.

“This OCP amendment, to be clear, doesn’t permit the developer to do anything different than it did yesterday,” explained Mike Gau, the city’s manager of planning and development services.

Work can’t start until the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board finishes the environmental assessment.

The city’s decision to not make a decision until the environmental assessment is completed means the tank farm cleanup will take another year to complete. That will cost the developer money, which will make the remediated land all the more expensive.

The councillors who voted to defer the OCP amendment on the tank farm did it to protect themselves from the wrath of the public.

Is it too much to expect more courage and fortitude from our political leaders?

Even at the best of times it probably is, but definitely when there is an election right around the corner.

Voters are, by and large, a fickle lot, more interested in style than substance. Emotion trumps reason; charisma, intelligence and spin beat facts.

It’s the reason Stephen Harper was able to run a campaign lauding his economic prowess when it was his policy of cutting the GST by two per cent that pushed this country into a structural deficit.

It’s the reason that Canadians feel a smug sense of self-assurance about our domestic banking system when it took a $114 billion government bailout, amounting to $3,400 for every man, woman and child in this county, to keep the five big banks from going under.

Economics, politics and the finer points of government are arcane, and often too boring for most to pay close attention to.

What’s a politician to do when their job is on the line?

Do they tell the people what they need to hear - Stephane Dion and his carbon cuts - or do they tell them what they want to hear - Stephen Harper and his tax cuts?

There’s a political adage that says you can’t run a campaign on any issue that you can’t explain in 30 seconds at the door.

The problem is that the challenges this country, this territory and this city face are complex, and the solutions needed to overcome them take time to explain. Time that politicians simply don’t have.

Journalists must share some of the blame. It’s the fourth estate that is supposed to explain these complex political conundrums to the masses. Often, though, journalists take no more pleasure in writing about obscure political procedures than people do reading about them. It’s just not sexy.

Here are the boring facts.

With the OCP amendment, the only question before council was: should the developer be allowed to dig up the contaminated soil? Yes or no.

It’s ultimately up to YESAB to advise the Yukon government on the conditions and restrictions that should be placed on the developer.

The Yukon government then issues a decision document, which will inform the city’s rezoning.

By doing the OCP amendment at the same time as the YESAB assessment, the city hoped to speed up the approval process.

Whatever conditions are attached to the remediation would be the same regardless of whether the OCP amendment is before or after the assessment.

The only difference is now, because council has deferred the OCP amendment until after YESAB tables its recommendations, it’s going to take six months to a year longer to start the work.

There is always the chance that the Yukon government will ignore YESAB. It has done that before, but that’s a whole other matter.

However, that wasn’t the issue for the councillors who voted it down. None of them expressed any concern the Yukon government would brush off YESAB’s recommendations. All of them said they were simply responding to the public’s expression of concern.

It’s about votes, plain and simple.

It’s exactly the kind of thing that Plato was afraid of.

Those city councillors who voted to turn down the OCP amendment made a rational political calculation that delaying the tank farm cleanup was only likely to alienate the two developers.

Passing the amendment, and then trying to explain it to the community was a much bigger risk.

It was a prudent move, but unfortunately for the city, it was the wrong one.