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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."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A super committee or a super commitment

Is someone trying to sabotage the Investment and Prosperity Committee or is it simply falling through the cracks? Is it just too many committees meeting at too many different times? Is it simply a matter of unwieldy time tables?

Certainly the committee has had its difficulties in identifying a regular meeting time. The city’s website indicates that meetings are to be held on Mondays “as identified on the annual meeting schedule” but the actual minutes of meetings show something else. Of the seven scheduled meetings, the first two took place on a Friday, followed by a Monday, a Tuesday, another Monday, and two more Tuesdays. The last failed due to lack of a quorum.

Start times varied as well, with some being held at the noon hour, others at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and, more recently, at 3:30 p.m. Initially, there was even talk about a Saturday meeting, but that appears to have been a no-go.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Councillor Joe Swan. He had been looking forward to chairing this committee which was charged with the responsibility for making the Mayor’s promise of 10,000 new jobs over the next four (or five) years come true. In fact, he had gotten the go ahead from council to start this committee early, before the new appointments would normally come into effect on December 1st.

The first disappoint came with the actual appointments of the members of the committee. He failed to attract the brighter lights on council, people with experience and ideas. Apart from Councillor Matt Brown, he found himself surrounded by members who have penchant for saying no to any ideas that are likely to require an investment. Unless it for roads or a project in their own wards.

The second difficulty came in getting a vice-chair. While Matt Brown was his choice, the other members had ideas of their own. They were about to propose the name of Paul VanMeerbergen, Dr. No incarnate. Only by proposing co-chairs was a confrontation avoided, a confrontation that the newly minted chair could not have won. So now there is a committee in which half are leaders and half are followers.

But even the leadership was not behind the leader. At the earliest opportunity, while the Mayor was off in China, several of the members availed themselves of the opportunity to support a reconsideration of the 1 per cent levy which was to have brought in a $100M over the next few years to fund some of the many projects council had referred to the committee as its wish list. Since the original proposal for the levy had been passed with a narrow margin while several councillors were not present, the levy was doomed to fail. So now, Swan had a committee with several hostile members, a fluctuating meeting schedule, a lengthy and expensive wish list, and no cash. It was not an enviable position.

In spite of this, they did soldier on, but, apart from receiving staff presentations, little was accomplished at the meetings. When new ideas were presented from outside the committee, as was the case with Councillor Paul Hubert’s proposal for a “Hire 1” campaign, the committee only grudgingly allowed him to make his presentation and no discussion was allowed. They needed the additional time to discuss when future meetings would take place.

Hubert’s ideas were to have been discussed this week. I was at Meeting Room 5 as indicated on the agenda right on the dot at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday. A neatly printed sign indicated that the meeting had been cancelled due to lack of a quorum which, since there are six members, would have required the presence of four members. That means that at least three of them had sent their regrets.

I have no idea who they were, but three of them—VanMeerbergen, Matt Brown, Denise Brown—have full-time employment. Bud Polhill has his own auto mechanics business and Swan is executive director for Orchestra London. Steve Orser is a “full-time” councillor and currently acting mayor while Joe Fontana is in China, Japan or Korea. When he can, the mayor attends committee meetings ex officio. That means he is not counted in the membership but can contribute to the quorum.

It makes one suspicious. At previous meetings, either all were present or only one member absent; when the mayor couldn’t be called upon to make up the quorum, suddenly more than two members found they couldn’t make it. When the mayor was away previously, his tax levy got overturned. This time the entire meeting was cancelled.

But why would some the members of the committee want to sabotage it?

It’s no secret that Swan has not made a lot of friends on council apart from perhaps Bill Armstrong and Sandy White. While he seems eager to promote the mayor’s agenda and curry his favour, and he is charming, intelligent and articulate, he is far too much of a chameleon to gain the respect or trust of his colleagues, regardless of which side of the 8-7 or 9-6 divide they find themselves. He is also believed to be politically ambitious and rumours abound about the direction in which those ambitions lie and at what level. And people are wary of the ambitious.

For his part, Swan dismisses any suggestion that there may be an attempt to undermine him. He attributes the difficulty in getting a quorum to a crushing workload created by the loss of the board of control and too many committees. He suggests that the answer would be the establishment of yet another committee, an executive committee to deal with the important stuff and set priorities.

I have my doubts. As I see it, the problem is not one of committees but of commitment. We have too many councillors who can’t or won’t do their homework. They don’t read the agenda and don’t do their research ahead of the meetings. As a result, they spend hours sharing ignorance which staff is having difficulty combating.

This is especially true of the planning committee. No matter what you call it, Built and Natural Environment or Planning and Environment, this committee will have a heavy workload. If you want to be on it, you have to be prepared to read the reports and understand the legislation. You are there to represent the interests of the city and its residents. You are not there to represent the development industry. It has plenty of well-paid agents already. If you remember that, you can get through the meeting in reasonably good time. You don’t have to spend eight or nine hours arguing with the staff that you have hired to give you its professional opinion.

When the Governance Task Force presented its report in 2009, it recommended three standing committees plus committee of the whole. Before that proposal had even had a year’s trial, it was abandoned in favour of seven standing committees, each one trying to find a time slot. It has meant more trips to city hall, more rooms to book, more demands on administrative staff time, more paper agendas. That has been marginally offset by meeting on a three, rather than a two, week rotation. As a result, each meeting is likely to have more items on the agenda.

So one more  committee, albeit a high powered one, is not likely to solve the problem, much as some members would like that designation. Nor are full-time councillors, Orser’s favourite solution, likely to provide better governance. Ditto for larger expense accounts if they are used to simply put more money in the pockets of councillors, or used to increase their prospects of re-election.

The problem with the current arrangement is that not all councillors are pulling their weight. A few are “heavy lifters” who do their homework, consult with staff and the community, seek out best practices. Others see their jobs as keeping their constituents happy and confine their activities to their own ward. Quite a few are focused on pleasing the corporate interests that financed their campaigns. And then there are those who simply coast; they enjoy being “Councillor” but they have little idea what their actual role is. They are the ones who make extraneous comments and non sequiturs and outrageous suggestions. They are hard pressed to identify what they are voting on and why.

I’ll leave to you, gentle reader, to determine Who’s who on city council.


Interested Party said...

It looks like you have summed things up very well, Gina.

It is a sobering picture.

A friend compared some members of this current oouncil to those outrageous British political comedies where the behaviour is so over-the-top that it is a laugh a minute.

If this all did not matter so much to our city it would make for a good laugh.

Anonymous said...

O.K. so here's a solution.
Like or lump it.
Change the name of the committee to Occupy London.
Post notice of meetings, including the items on the agenda, time, place and names of the chairperson, secretary, and treasurer of the committee,
on the front door of City Hall, the lobby of the London Police Services station, firehalls, libraries, the theatre, Orchestra London's playbill, and various community minded publications that don't charge for public service announcements.
I have full faith in the community of Londoners, that if those simple tasks are completed, people will show up.