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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Of committees, chairs and acting mayors

Every year, committee terms end and new committees are formed. This year, there are new committees as well as a whole new schedule. And council meetings on Tuesdays! Whatever will we watch on Monday nights?

While I served on council we struck a task force to review the governance of the city. The main impetus behind this initiative was the issue of the future of the Board of Control. Although the voters of London had supported the abolition of the Board in a referendum in 2003, the council of the day decided not to act upon the voters’ message and, since fewer than half the voters turned up at the polls, it didn’t have to listen. It decided, although with much debate and dissension, to maintain the status quo.

It was a decision that encouraged me to run for a controller position in the next campaign in 2006. I was offended by the arrogance of the decision as well as the decision itself. And I was not alone. Several other contenders ran on a platform which included eliminating Board of Control. It was a commitment that resonated with many voters and one that helped to account for my success in that election, getting the second highest vote of the four winning candidates, and being the only newcomer to that body. It made a statement.

The mandate of the taskforce, composed of members of council and the community, was to undertake a complete review of the structure and functioning of our council and to make recommendations regarding the future of the Board of Control, the number and types of standing committees and their responsibilities, and the appointments to agencies, boards and commissions, as well as forms of citizen engagement.

The task force met 25 times over 13 months, including 9 public meetings. At the end of it we  recommended a restructuring of council which eliminated the Board of Control, divided its responsibilities among three new standing committees and the Committee of the Whole. It recommended a method of selecting an acting mayor (not a deputy mayor), and encouraged rotation of members and chairs on the standing committees. The idea was to ensure that all councillors would understand all matters coming before them and that workloads would be reasonably fairly distributed while recognizing individual interests and expertise.

Most of the recommendations of the task force were adopted by the previous council and implemented for the new one but not for long. It seems within weeks of the new committees forming following the election of 2010, before anyone had even had a chance to learn how it functioned, a consultant was brought in to clean things up. It was done without even a notification or a thank you to the 19 people who had given up more than 25 evenings to bring forward the initial report.

So, starting later this week, the new structure will begin to be implemented: 6 committees meeting on a new schedule. It remains to be seen how long the new format will last.

Last week, Committee of the Whole made its appointments to the new standing committees, some of which meet every three weeks and some which meet four times yearly.

While the appointment process can be a bit unwieldy in any case, in the past, councillors’ preferences were submitted to Board of Control which in turn would make recommendations. Usually these things were worked out in advance and conflicts were few although they could be bitter at times. Generally, by the time the matter went to Council, it would have sorted itself out. It was understood that some movement would take place and that chairs would leave their positions at the end of the one year term to be succeeded by the vice-chair. A certain amount of lobbying would occur to obtain a vice-chair position once the committees had been established. Controllers were not eligible to chair standing committees.

All that became very chaotic last week. Although with the loss of the Board of Control there were fewer people competing, there were even more places to fill. With 6 committees and five to a 
committee, each councillor being required to sit on two, but no one on more than three, it was hard to keep up with the constantly shifting list.

Here’s how it looked at the end of the wrangling:

  • Finance and Administration (meets every 3 weeks): Mayor Joe Fontana (chair), Joni Baechler (Ward 5), Nancy Branscombe (Ward 6), Paul Hubert (vice-chair, Ward 8), Denise Brown (Ward 11).
  • Planning and Environment (meets every 3 weeks): Bud Polhill (chair, Ward 1), Joe Swan (Ward 3), Dale Henderson (Ward 9), Judy Bryant (Ward 13), Sandy White (Ward 14); Mayor Fontana ex officio.
  •  Civic Works (meets every 3 weeks): Harold Usher (chair, Ward 12), Stephen Orser (Ward 4), Joni Baechler, Paul Van Meerbergen (Ward 10), Sandy White; Mayor Fontana ex officio.
  •  Community Services (meets every 3 weeks): Matt Brown (chair, Ward 7), Bill Armstrong (Ward 2), Nancy Branscombe, Dale Henderson, Harold Usher; Mayor Fontana ex officio.
  • Public Safety (meets quarterly): Denise Brown (chairperson), Bud Polhill, Bill Armstrong, Judy Bryant, Paul Hubert; Mayor Fontana ex officio.
  • Investment and Economic Prosperity (meets quarterly): Joe Swan (chairperson), Bud Polhill, Steve Orser, Matt Brown, Paul VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown; Mayor Fontana ex officio.
From where I was sitting at the back of the room as this transformation was being accomplished, it was difficult to know what was going on since the flip charts on which the first, second, third and fourth choices of the councillors were being recorded faced away from us. Dale Henderson wasn’t there to lobby for his position and one or two others left as well. Some were unclear about the process; Swan didn’t realize he a) couldn’t chair two committees and b) didn’t have to chair the one he was currently vice-chairing.

Eventually, it sorted itself out, but with little indication that many were thinking about the effectiveness of the committees they were populating. While Finance and Administration (FAC) looks quite solid, Planning and Environment will suffer from the absence of Baechler, the only both critical and intelligent voice on the current Built and Natural Environment Committee which it replaces. Swan will probably have some difficulty bringing prosperity to London given who is joining him in that endeavour. And the only opportunity for holding a chair position has come from expanding the number of committees; all the past chairs (Polhill, Usher and the Mayor) continue to lay claim to that distinction.

A development at the last council meeting helped to reduce some of the competition for chairing committees. Although it had been recommended by FAC that the chairs of the various committees rotate the position of acting mayor in the absence of Fontana, Baechler suggested that all councillors take turns at this responsibility.

That meant defeating the original motion which all did except for Matt Brown, Hubert, Swan and Polhill. When the motion failed, all but Swan and Polhill supported Baechler’s suggestion.

I was acting mayor a couple of times when both the mayor and the deputy mayor were unavailable.

It’s not that big a deal.

1 comment:

Rupert Van Pupert said...

Little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

A make-work project for a connected consultant.

On the 2010 election hustings, didn't Joe Fontana say the City of London would use fewer consultants if he was elected mayor?