The committee meetings on Monday and Tuesday were brutal; Built and Natural Environment Committee (BNEC) ran from 3 p.m. till 11 p.m. and Community and Neighbourhoods Committee (CNC) from 4 till 9:30, each with a half hour dinner break. Not enough time to get anything unless you’re a councillor and staff has a hot meal waiting for you.
It happens like that sometimes. Things pile up and suddenly you have a lot of reports and items to deal with. Especially if you’re meeting on a three instead of two week schedule.
Fortunately, Wednesday’s meeting of the Finance and Administration Committee (FAC) wouldn’t last nearly as long. A 64 page agenda, although another 78 pages appeared at the meeting. Still, no biggie. They’d be finished by noon. They always are.
A late start. The mayor was detained by the release of the report of the Economic Prosperity Council. Fortunately, it had already been posted on line and I could get a little peek at it.
Once it got going, the meeting flowed along nicely. There were a couple of delegations. An update from the Grand Theatre. Up beat. They’re posting a surplus. Then a report on a way to help council evaluate requests by nonprofits for funding. That will come in handy at budget time, especially if funds are limited as they are bound to be when you want to avoid tax increases.
Because the meeting had started late, the delegations were heard first. They are timed items so that people don’t have to wait unnecessarily to make their presentations. Normally, the consent items are dealt with first. These are matters that are routine or have been previously discussed and you need only to approve them. However, if you have a question or a concern, you can always “pull” an item out of the consent items and deal with it separately; the remainder are approved in a single vote.
On Wednesday, there were nine consent items. It was the third item, a one-time allocation of local government funding, that generated some controversy.
This was a follow-up to an inquiry from Councillor Judy Bryant at the previous meeting of FAC requesting that there be some sort of short-term help in the Councillor’s offices answering phones, emails constituent walk-ins, etc.
When the issue reached the council meeting, Councillor Sandy White took up the cry. Things had reached the desperation point, she said. She chose to use her expense account to help individuals in her community and there was no money left for hiring a part-time assistant. That shouldn’t have to come out of her pay-cheque.
She was assured that a report would come to the next meeting of FAC. There was still $170,000 left over from the now defunct Board of Control that had already been put in the budget and hadn’t been spent yet. Something would be worked out.
And so here it was, a one-page report recommending, “$120,000 be given to the Councillors’ Office for the purpose of improving constituency report resources; and $50,000 to the Mayor’s Office for the purpose of improving constituency liaison initiatives.”
“What do you need the money for” Councillor Nancy Branscombe asked the mayor, noting that he already had three administrative staff and one political staff person in his office, more than what is available in total for all the councillors.
The mayor seemed taken aback. “We had already set aside this money,” he pointed out. It was about “how we can better serve the citizens.” The question was “How do we divvy this up?” He acknowledged that the councillors needed a lot more but “There is nothing in the mayor’s office to do anything.
“I’m not trying to be greedy,” he continued, but then spoke of how while at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) Convention he had met all these mayors from big cities. “We are short-changing ourselves. You wouldn’t believe some of the budgets some of these people have. We must be at the bottom.”
Branscombe was not convinced. “What are we going to do with it?” she wanted to know. “We have accounts now, there’s a term for it,” referring to what is affectionately known as the Trinkets and Trash account which had been the focus of some controversy earlier in the year. “I’m not sure that’s what it was intended for." She wanted to see some guidelines for the money.
Fontana appealed to the city clerk to report on what was being planned for staffing in the councillors’ office. She indicated that a report was in the works whereupon Branscombe moved that the decision be deferred until council received a comprehensive report.
Councillor Paul Hubert supported the deferral. He wanted to see a plan. He noted that during the budget process, council had eliminated the reception budget used to welcome out of town conferences hosted in the city. He felt it made us “look very cheap.” Additionally, he was appalled at the state of our communications infrastructure in the council chambers because of a lack of funding. Putting some money into that, he felt, might be a better use of the money in liaising with the community.
Councillor Dale Henderson, though, addressed what he considered to be the “elephant in the room,” the issue of who decides how the money is spent. “We need help,” he pleaded, suggesting that the councillor is in the best position to know what is needed and therefore should be given the discretion to use the money as s/he sees fit.
Ultimately, the motion to wait until a full report was available prevailed.
This was followed by a report from the Governance Working Group recommending a new meeting schedule which, if adopted, would allow for a return of meetings of standing committees to be held concurrently. A public participation meeting is planned for next week.
The mayor expressed his reservations about the proposed schedule. What about the public, when all meeting were going on at the same time?
Yes, and what about the mayor? So far he attends all the meetings and pretty much controls them. That will be harder to do under the new schedule.
He was also concerned about the size of the reports and the lack of lead time to read them. He had received 40 lbs of paper to be read over the weekend. He didn’t know how the previous council had done it.
This issue of workload has come up before. Shortly after he was elected Councillor Dale Henderson had complained that the workload was too heavy and he needed extra money to hire some help. And certainly, the past week has been a heavy one, especially for members of the BNEC.
But there are peaks and valleys. Just to see if there indeed has been a significant increase in workload, I compared the full two week meeting cycle of preceding month, May 2011 with that of month of May 2007 in terms of length of meetings, number of agenda items, and number of pages of agenda and reports to be read. My analysis showed that the current council spent 10 per cent less time in meetings, read 32 per cent fewer pages of reports and agenda, and dealt with 25 percent fewer agenda items than the council of 2007.
It’s only one cycle, and the analysis doesn’t cover the time spent on phones and email, nor does is take into account the time spent in additional voluntary meetings. But it does call into question the notion that there is so much more work now that Board of Control is gone.
The current council members, new and returning, campaigned hard to win their constituencies and their positions. That same effort can now be directed to ensuring that their constituents are well served because that’s what the position is all about.