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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."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Swan Lake or swan song?

I made it just in the nick of time to get to the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee Meeting at 3:30 on Wednesday. Although some doubt had been expressed the day before, there was a quorum. In fact all the committee members save Bud Polhill were present and accounted for. The mayor was not in attendance but then, he is a member ex officio, so while he can help contribute to the quorum, his absence does not detract from it. In any case, the meeting was quickly called to order by Chairperson Joe Swan.

And almost as quickly it was over, a scant hour later. I had forgotten to put money in the parking meter directly in front of city hall but no matter, bylaw enforcement hadn’t been around to issue a ticket. I felt relieved and somewhat justified; after all, there was that time just last week when I had put three quarters into a meter and received only 12 minutes. And other times, too, when I put in far more than I needed because I didn’t have the right change or returned to my car early.

Swan is an efficient chair. He lets every committee member have his/her say, but his efficiency encourages economy of words. He doesn’t, as does the mayor, argue with or endorse every viewpoint presented. Have your say and on with the next, is how he likes to do things. It makes for short meetings.

But what also makes for short meetings is the fact that the members have little to say. Despite the fact that this is a committee of their choice, that it is tasked with what may be seen as the most important objective of this council, to stimulate growth and create economic prosperity, this group is remarkably incurious. Could it be that they already know all the answers?

Take for example the presentation by the two out of province bus companies wanting council to lobby on their behalf to get into the intercity transportation service. The chair wanted to know why they had come to the municipality if their issue was with provincial regulation.

The answer was pretty obvious: they wanted allies.

Councillor Steve Orser wanted to know what other companies already here, like Greyhound and Aboutown, were saying about deregulation. The representatives didn’t know; they just knew that deregulation would be good for the consumer. It would create more competition and lower prices. Besides, their real competition was not other buses but the private automobile. They just wanted to get people out of their cars.

Finally, Councillor Matt Brown asked the question that was on my mind; what exactly was the nature of the deregulation? What specific barriers to competition had to be eliminated?

From the response given, I gleaned that newcomers to the province have to apply to get into the game, and their applications can be challenged, taking up time and money. It was all pretty vague, but no one else followed up on this. Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen simply, without comment, supported Brown’s motion to refer this to staff for an assessment so as to avoid a one-sided perspective. Orser opposed the motion and Councillor Denise Brown had declared a conflict since she works for Aboutown.

As far as I could see, Swan didn’t vote on the question. That was interesting since a failure to vote is, according to council procedure, a no vote; there is no abstention. If that were the case, it should have been a tied vote, which would have meant the vote lost. However, the motion was treated as carried and the meeting continued.

There were a few other items of business: a good news report from the JLC (the city will get more of the proceeds in years to come), an update on the joint venture agreement for the arena at the fairgrounds, a report from the Creative Cities Committee, and a last minute request from a solar roof panel company for council support for getting a feed-in-tariff contract for two London projects from the Ontario Power Authority. However, the request had come too late; the competition had long since closed.

But there was an item on the agenda that many in the audience, including the media, were interested in—the report from the City of Kitchener on how it had kick-started economic growth and renewal in the downtown core by investing in educational and recreational building projects there. Their approach had included significant public consultation and participation, a long term perspective, and—and this was the kicker—an economic development investment fund. In short, a levy. Or perhaps a tax.

In 2009, the Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Fielding had taken a small busload of staff and councillors to Kitchener to have a look at what had been accomplished to date. As he had previously worked in Kitchener he had a right to be proud of what could be accomplished. We toured the School of Social Work, the Pharmacy School, the nearby condos. It was pretty impressive, and you could see that the investment was creating interest from the private sector. Things were sprucing up.

But once the fund had been referenced, the committee members appeared to have little interest in the report on how the investment had played out. It seemed that some minds had been made up.

There was no verbal report, only the written report included in the agenda. Staff was not asked to make a presentation and no one asked a question about what in fact had been done in Kitchener. A few before and after pictures would have been helpful.

But there was nothing, only a dry report. It is doubtful that all members had actually read it.

One person who had read it was Paul Hubert who, although not a committee member, had some observations. He pointed out that Kitchener had made a 10 year plan, they were thinking long term. Maybe people at the time were probably saying “You’ve got to be crazy,” but the investment was paying off. It takes time. And it might be interesting to look at some other municipalities, like St. Catherine's or Boulder, Colorado, to see how they managed to fund their redevelopments.

Orser wasn’t much interested in what had been built in Kitchener or any other place. He wanted to know if the Kitchener council had established a separate form of taxation for this and the exact amount. That information hadn’t been included in the report although it was acknowledged to be somewhat over 1%, generating $110M for the fund.

Orser also wanted to know if Kitchener had sold off any of its assets to contribute to the fund. It’s a favourite theme of his; he would love to sell the convention centre and he raises this suggestion at every opportunity.

And finally, he wanted to know about the opposition from the public to the fund that Kitchener had experienced. He was promised a full report including the answers to those questions in future meetings.

But for Orser, a further report was probably unnecessary. He moved that the report be received but wanted no further action. He didn’t want a levy for a Lake Fontana, he sputtered, with all due respect to the mayor and to Councillor Swan…

“That would be Swan Lake,” quipped the chair, but Orser was not about to be disarmed.

“The people in the homes that have been kind enough to put me in this seat don’t want it!” he stated flatly.

Councillor Denise Brown, a staunch opponent of the levy, came to his support. The council had already voted on this, the economic levy, only a few months ago. Wouldn't it require support from two-thirds of the council to reverse it since it was already a decided matter of council?  she appealed to the city clerk.

The clerk said she would check the record; she believed the vote had taken place in the fall. It was a new year, it could be raised as a new resolution.

Swan was exasperated. He had had high hopes for this committee; he had wanted to be chair. But without some cash, it wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Council had asked the city treasurer to cost the projects, to bring them back with a financial plan to support them, he pointed out. They would hear about some projects that required no public investment, that just required reducing the red tape, make things a bit easier  for the developers. They could show they were open for business.

“That’s the will of council,” he concluded.

None of what he said was going to change his mind, Orser retorted. It was pointless to have staff wasting time on investigating a levy. What they needed to do was find another way to raise money, sell some non-revenue producing assets, sell the convention centre.

And so it ended, with a motion to receive the report with almost no discussion. For Swan, the economic levy is still very much on the table, but without a committee willing even to discuss the possibility, his may be a lone voice.

On Saturday, beginning at 9 a.m. in council chambers (3rd floor) the committee will hear from the public, both groups and individuals, about the ideas they have for the committee and the city. 41 proposals have been submitted of which the committee plans to hear the first dozen and then try to find times to hear the remainder.

Clearly, the public has lots of ideas. They are engaged.

But is the committee?


Al Jolson said...

Swanee, how I love ya, how I love ya!

My dear old Swanee.

The folks of North (Arva?) will see me no more,

When I get to that Swanee shore.

Poor Swan, a man with big ideas (next mayor?) but not much of a crew for his leaky boat.

Anonymous said...

Why did Orser, Van Merbuggen and Denise Brown choose this committee? Did they want to be on this committee for the sole purpose of saying no to every idea? These may be nice enough people and might even be good councillors, but they are not creative thinkers by any stretch of the imagination.

Doesn't Economic Development require some thinking outside of the box and interesting ideas? Other than build more roads, backyard chickens, and rush through every developer's dumb idea as fast as they can, what else do these three come up with?

Good luck to this committee. My crystal ball predicts no accomplishments of any kind will take place during this term.

Anonymous said...

Gina, as chair of the committee, Mr. Swan wouldn't have had a vote except to break a tie, according to "Roberts Rules of Order". Had the Mayor been present, he would've been chairing the meeting and Mr. Swan would have had a vote.

and also, I do believe that some councilors won the faith of the majority of the electorate based on a promise to say no to any new spending that would entail raising property taxes, and don't doubt they chose to be members of IEPC in order to continuing voting NO...which is fine by me.

Gina Barber said...

Council has its own procedure bylaw which requires all members to vote. The chair of the committee, Joe Swan in this case, always chairs regardless of the presence of the mayor.