Last Wednesday, the Town and Gown Committee held a public participation meeting in the Council Chambers at City Hall. Slated for three hours, the meeting bled over another 30 minutes past ten o'clock, with the public gallery dangerously close to capacity.
The crowd consisted of a roughly equal mix of residents living near the campusses of Western University and Fanshawe College, and students attending these two post-secondary institutions. Conversations between these two groups took place as seven o'clock neared: an exchange of ideas that seemed cordial.
Before the public participation section of the night, Orest Katolyk (formerly called the manager of by-law enforcement, but now with the new title that committee chair and Ward 7 Councillor Matt Brown succeeded in remembering) gave an overview of how Project LEARN came about. The Great Near-Campus Neighbourhood Strategy of 2008 identified three "customers" for the by-law enforcers: complainants (want immediate action); alleged violators (don't want to be bothered); and the general public ("silent majority"). 2009 introduced a new noise by-law and a limit of five bedrooms in a unit. Good baseline information on near-campus housing.
Police Chief Brad Duncan presented next, saying that "we are back at the same point as in 2005" when Project Speakeasy (predecessor to LEARN) came into effect to combat the increase in noise complaints with a balance of enforcement and education. 2009 introduced more strict enforcement after violence on Thurman Circle; then we have 2012 and the famous St. Patrick's Day riot on Fleming Drive, which gave way to a zero-tolerance policy. Police felt that after six years, the message that students need to consider their neighbours and the community at large was not being received, acknowledged, or respected. He admitted this short-term solution can not solve the issue.
For 2013, Chief Duncan noted that police issued warnings at Hallowe'en and this was successful; however, the Broughdale area continues to pose the largest problem, highlighted by a spontaneous party during Western's homecoming celebrations.
I counted 31 speakers in total, with 13 being students of either Western of Fanshawe. Below lists some of the highlights noted by these people - the entire record should become available from the Town and Gown committee on their next agenda.
- Garbage, vandalism, urination on homes, "student Hell" from September to May
- Police use negative reinforcement and unjustly charge for noise complaints
- "95%" improvement since zero-tolerance implemented; used to the peace and quiet
- Students make up "10% of the population" and "need a place to release the pressure of growing up": special zone for parties? These students are "under the most pressure in history"
- It takes a village to raise a child; respect begets respect
- Collection of personal information was a bad move, but police had "honourable intentions"; 2% are trouble-makers, 8% watch (and join if no authority corrects them), and 90% are behaving
- Forget about the riot: "get over it"; police intimidate with "harassment" and go "fishing" for students, who are just like other residents (pay taxes, shop, etc.) and are Canadian citizens
- Can the students' councils and administrations help students fit into neighbourhoods?
- Noise issues disrupt sleep and cause health issues and shouldn't be disrupted living in own home; need "neighbourhood captains" to act as student leaders
- Likes the energy brought by students, but the riot was just a matter of time
- Students feel the "rules don't apply" and want "special treatment": if they acted as adults, there would be no problems with police
- Students hosting a charity party fined for noise as a "nuisance party" at discretion of officer; zero tolerance doesn't work
- Negative reinforcement not a good way to learn; only one out of five neighbours complained about a party
- Concerned for safety when walking at night downtown
- Make more neighbourhoods in the city more accessible to students; reduce pressure on near-campus areas
- "Reluctant and somewhat fearful" to give his opinion (retaliation by police)
- LEARN is working; "two groups missing" from conversation are landlords (to communicate information to students) and real-estate agents (need to stop pricing houses in near-campus areas as businesses, and need to give maintenance and by-law information to would-be landlords)
- "What's wrong with having a couch on your front lawn?"
- Police asked to smell the contents of a water bottle, and when accidentally dropped was issued a littering ticket
- Students contribute to the economy; zero tolerance is "too strict"
- Considers himself a London resident, but LEARN makes him feel like a "second-class citizen" and not like "an individual": this does not encourage interaction
- LEARN creates divide between students, citizens, and police
- Police can now use stung guns: are there "de-escalation routines"?
- Students have "a right" to live in neighbourhoods; need "environment of respect" since zero tolerance fosters hostility
- At the "tipping point" of too much student housing; feels "invaded" by realtors "speculating": need pre-emptive law enforcement and more transparent information on who owns a property
- Support for LEARN and residential homeowners
- Students asking police not to enforce law; "vast amount" of housing is illegal
- Need "community of caring, not blame"; tell students how to party "safely"
- LEARN "failed because we failed as a community"
- Lives in "ghetto" and has dealt with student issues for 30 years; at least 70% student concentration
- "No political cache" with students, so supporting LEARN is "politically expedient"
Living in Blackfriars, which is considered a "near-campus neighbourhood", we actually enjoy a good balance of students, long-term residents, and new families. It's a balance that should perhaps prevail across the board.
In closing the public participation portion of the meeting, committee members had their chance to speak. Another meeting, with public input hopefully on the table, should occur in the next couple of months. Let's hope the points gathered will give both sides something to think about, and the "chasm" (as Mayor Joe Fontana put it) can be bridged happily.