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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reconstituting Services Review Committee

By now, everyone who is interested in what goes on at city council is aware that another tied vote on Tuesday on setting the budget targets at zero means that no decision was made. Sudden Illness caused Councillor Stephen Orser to leave the chambers immediately after the dinner break, so his previous appeal to wait for Councillor VanMeerbergen to be present to avoid another tied vote was in vain. VanMeerbergen was there, but Full-time Orser was not. It will be another month before they have an opportunity to give it another go.

In all likelihood, most of them will remember their speeches, for or against, at that time; having already delivered them twice almost verbatim, there should not be much additional memory work involved.

One theme that definitely came forward a second time was the matter of the work of the Services Review Committee which has been elevated to the status of a standing committee and is being renamed the pre-budget committee.

Chaired by Nancy Branscombe since its inception in 2008, the committee was formed to find organizational and operational efficiencies at city hall. Councillors were finding the approach of simply adding across the board increases in the budgets of various departments an unsatisfactory way of getting the best value for the taxpayers’ dollar. Thus was instituted the Services Review Committee which was to review all services provided by the city, to determine what was working and what not, to compare practices to that of other municipalities, and even take a service to zero and build from that for a few areas each year.

I served on that committee for two years and it was a lot of work and a lot of long meetings. It was also a large committee, the thinking being that the only way to make recommendations from it go forward, you would want a lot of councillors already committed to the process and the decisions. Besides, being on the committee was quite an education in itself; you got to know about services that you may never have given any thought to and met a lot of staff members that you would normally not run into.

Because it was a lot of work and required a lot of meeting time, it was sometimes hard to get a quorum and there were times when a lot of highly paid staff were sitting around and cooling their heels while the committee was desperately calling around trying to find another body. There was a significant number of members who wanted to be on the committee, but not necessarily attend the meetings or read the agenda.

But there were the stalwarts: Branscombe, Baechler, Bryant, Eagle, Usher and myself. And even when the new council was elected, Branscombe, Baechler, Bryant, and Usher soldiered on and others joined them. But the problems of nonattendance continued.

Not surprisingly, a certain amount of resentment builds up when people are working hard trying to get the job done and then get held up by others who frequently seem to have difficulty showing up or on time. And then, if their worked is summarily dismissed by others who can’t be bothered to participate, people can get a little testy.

We had intimations of that at the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee the previous evening. Both Branscombe and Baechler had indicated that they were tired of doing the heavy-lifting only to have all their work undone by those who hadn’t even read their agendas.

At council, Branscombe laid down her cards. She has been chairing the committee for four years now, working to whittle down the budget without damaging core services, prepared to make cuts that were necessary. But last year, she had asked for councillors who wanted a zero tax increase to bring forward a list of things they were willing to cut, but she had received no response from them. Worse, they overturned committee recommendations, made decisions behind closed doors, took money earmarked for the reserves, and then dealt with the shortfall by covering it through the surplus.

It was the last straw, using one-time money to cover ongoing expenses. It made budgeting impossible. She wasn’t going through that again. Zero increase she could handle but you had to face up to the fact that the results wouldn’t be pretty. “We can do this,” she conceded, “but we have to be honest about what that means.” She wouldn’t be serving on the Services Review Committee if it meant using reserves to get to zero.

It wasn’t his turn to speak, but Joe Swan cut in loud enough to be heard in the chambers and in the city’s living rooms. “If you don’t get your way. are you going to quit service review?” he asked nastily.  

“That’ll be my decision,” Branscombe replied.

His Worship intervened. He was getting tired of hearing threats. This debate had fallen to the worst. Members saying they wouldn’t serve on committees! They were all elected! It was very disheartening.

Councillor Sandy White was quick to point out that there were lots more fish in the sea if committee members quit. And then, since she had the floor, she added irrelevantly if taxes were progressive, she wouldn’t be paying nearly as much as some other people around the table. It’s a favourite theme of hers: as a social worker and a councillor, she is poverty-stricken.

Councillor Joni Baechler joined the fray. Baechler knows the budget inside and out. She too has served on Services Review for the last four years. “If you think I’m going to do the work,” she flared. “There’s no threat about it; we’ve been working our butts off. It’s easy to do nothing but vote no. Half of you don’t understand growth and non growth, what capital is and what’s operational.”

“Some people’s positions are entrenched,” Swan observed, condescendingly. “We can do it, if we have the will.” Those who didn’t support the goal of zero should resign, he suggested. There were seven members there who were prepared to join the committee tonight. “We will do the hard work, roll up our sleeves.” He himself was “working my tail off on [the] Investment [and Prosperity Committee].

And what would that committee look like?  Let’s take a look.
  • Joe Swan has a committee he chairs, but he’s had difficulty getting a quorum or a consensus. The members seem to delight in derailing his proposals whether for a vice chair or a tax levy. He also has problems showing up at meetings and being on time.
  • White has no idea about finances. Nor does she seem engaged in her current committee, Planning and Environment, where her contribution consists of asking the developer/applicant how soon he wants what he’s asking for. She complains that her workload is already too heavy. She is often unclear about what motion is on the floor.
  • Denise Brown currently serves on the Finance and Administration Committee where she contributes infrequently. She tends to pick out one or two things and harp on them. Currently it’s the Health Unit that she would like to see cut.
  • Dale Henderson is currently on the Services Review Committee where he learned two phrases: “measurables”and “zero-based budgets”. Unfortunately, he finds it difficult to remember what they are so that he can use them appropriately. At council, he recommended moving to zero-based budgeting obviously forgetting that the committee on which he serves is actually doing that.
  • Bud Polhill and Paul VanMeerbergen joined the Services Review Committee in the previous term of council. Polhill missed 10 of the 25 meetings, and was frequently late for even those. He recently resigned from the committee. VanMeerbergen made it out for part of 5 out of 25 meetings. He is not available for daytime meetings.
  • Steve Orser does not serve on any committees unless he has to. While he served on the Housing Leadership Committee during the last council term, he rarely showed up.
So that’s your committee, if the membership depends on those who are wedded to a tax freeze.

It’s a chilling thought.


tannie said...

Thank you for the bird's eye view on the committee. If Swan ends up chairing service review, or any of those turkeys get their claws in, London is in for serious trouble.

It concerns me that Orser isn't on a committee, but in the same breath, it's a relief.

Puzzled observer said...

What should such a committee be called?

I'm torn between "The Seven Zeroes" and "The Seven Dwarfs."

Anonymous said...

Okay. So the two Joes expect the people of London to believe that maintaining a tax freeze is a sound way to run something like a city? How can this possibly be true? Surely the City departments and staff who have reported to the Services Review Committee have told them the truth about the servide cuts, layoffs and defrayed expenditures that will result. I have a lot of faith in City staff, and I think it is well founded. So, then are the two Joes asking me to second guess and even mistrust City staff and service providers? Ridiculous.

Or, are the two Joes just, for reasons that only they can know, simply trying to discredit the hard working (and actually working) members of the Services Review Committee? Either way, Joe, Joe and your six supporters- you should be ashamed. Work with your colleagues, and recognize their hard work, expertise and competence. I'm sure when any of you eight display your hard work, competence and expertise they will give you the same recognition.

Anonymous said...

Is there any reason we can't just impeach them for not showing up? Get rid of them, and get people in there that actually want to help the city, not people on a power trip.

Shiller said...

Sad and outrageous. We risk losing Councillors with intellect vision, strategic sense and work ethic like Baechler and Branscombe and we'll be left with buffoons who don't even read agendas let alone background information and narrow minded idealogues and back room dealers. This is getting serious for the City.

What can we do prior to the next election to influence the buffoons and idealogues, most of whom revel in telling constituents, politely and occasionally impolitely, to stuff it?

Is there a power of recall under the Municipal Act? Hint hint....Ward 9 would be a great place to start.

Anonymous said...

If Sandy White is a social worker then she's not poverty-stricken. The constituents who require social workers are though.
Whatever it is that social workers have done or are doing, to alleviate poverty, just so you know, well, not to be disloyal to my chosen peers but they've been doing it for a long, long time and well, it doesn't work.
How come we NEED money?
It's unnatural.
We shouldn't need to have money just so we can fall asleep without being arrested and charged with vagrancy. People NEED to sleep or you know what happens...their behavior becomes socially unacceptable and they get arrested.

Whales are people too.

Sandy White poverty-stricken eh?
I don't think so.
Didn't she go for lunch at the Harmony with her friends and colleagues? Did she wearing a red chiffon dress and black patent leather shoes with matching clutch?

Poverty stricken people can't afford to go to nice restaurants for lunch.

Gina Barber said...

Sandy White was not at the Harmony lunch.

Anonymous said...

Do you think any of them read through the list of reductions required to cut $25 M from the budget to get to zero? It is there for all to see at the city's web site through the Council meeting link on the home page to the June 25th Strategic Priorities Cte meeting. It was the first item. Ugly stuff folks.


Kathy Clee said...

I'm wondering if we'll get to see VanMeerbergen teach those damn, tax-sucking four year-olds a lesson by being the only councillor to vote to close wading pools again.