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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tweaking governance

This may have been the most coherent and efficient meeting this council has produced to date.

I am speaking of the meeting of the Strategic Planning and Policy Committee (SPPC) held on Monday afternoon. Although it started a few minutes late and with only 12 of the 15 members in attendance, it finished just over an hour and a half later without acrimony and a unanimous vote. That in itself is worthy of notice.

It helped that there was only one item on the agenda, the matter of governance. This matter is dear to my heart because I sat on the Governance Taskforce which recommended the elimination of the Board of Control as well as some other changes in the composition of committees and their meeting schedules.

Some of those recommendations were implemented when the new council took office in December of 2010 but within months some councillors were demanding changes. The meetings were too long, there were too many meetings; adjustments were needed. Among those adjustments was the need for more committees meeting at different times. Instead of three committees meeting biweekly, and alternating with a Council and/or Committee of the Whole meeting, they wanted to split off some functions from existing committees and, of course, take on some additional responsibilities. It was a council on the move; the old way just didn’t cut it. It didn’t hurt that the creation of new committees also offered more opportunities for chairmanship and the additional prestige and dollars that go along with that.

Some of it made sense. Creating a Civic Works Committee which deals with tenders and infrastructure like roads and sewers can take the burden off the Built and Natural Environment Committee (i.e. Planning Committee); even staff had a hard time figuring out if a tender should go there or to the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee (CNC). But carving a Public Safety Committee out of the CNC, whose agenda was already short, really beggared any thought of equality in workloads.

The addition of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC) was, I believe, a concession to the mayor’s election promise of 10,000 net new jobs over the next four or five years. He had found a kindred spirit in Joe Swan who was happy to promote this committee with himself as chair.

That made six standing committees (plus Audit Committee and Services Review Committee), five opportunities for advancement in a pool of 14 councillors, since the mayor still had dibs on the Finance and Administration Committee. And it’s not just the extra money for chairing a committee; there is also the prestige associated with being the one that the media would consult when an item of interest appeared on the agenda. It was this aspect that led Councillor Harold Usher to remind his colleagues in an email to them that the chair is the voice of the committee with the media. The creation of the Civic Works Committee gave him an opportunity to continue as chair of something. Previously, he had had to wait it out with other lesser members until a new opportunity arrived on the Community Services Committee.

It had been hoped that the creation of the new committees would lead to shorter, more focussed meetings but no such luck. Work expands to fit the time available, and so it was for the committees. While some did indeed conclude their deliberations in record time, having little to deal with, the time savings was more than gobbled up by having to attend two such meetings at different times and sometimes on different days. The heaviest committee, the new Planning and Environment Committee, continued to meet late into the evenings while it deliberated on ways to keep developers happy despite the intrusion of staff reports, planning principles and legislation. It was hard to tell that anything had been removed from its scope via the Civic Works Committee.

Although full council meetings had been rescheduled from once every other week to once every three weeks, moving them to Tuesdays eliminated the impact of statutory holidays so they were in actuality meeting as often as before.

So something had to be done. Meetings were dragging on longer and longer, council was dealing with committee work rather than committee recommendations, and everyone was getting tired and frustrated. It was time for staff to step in. This couldn’t go on.

The report from the city clerk was succinct and to the point.        

  • Public Safety Committee should be sent back to where it came from, the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee. It should revert to its original name, Community and Protective Services (CAPS) Committee.
  • Planning and Environment Committee should become the Planning and Development Committee. Forget environment; the environment should be everywhere. 
  • Council in camera meetings should occur at 4 p.m. followed by the public meeting at 5 p.m. 
  • The Service Review Committee, renamed the Budget Committee, should be delegated to staff. The chair, Nancy Branscombe had already resigned when council decided 8-7 to go for another year of a tax freeze although those who advocate the freeze had been unwilling to accept any of the recommendations from Service Review to achieve it nor to provide suggestions of their own. 
  • Some committees should be renamed: Civic Works, for example should be called Municipal Infrastructure Services Committee (MISC); Finance and Administration Committee should become Corporate Services; Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee should revert to being Committee of the Whole. 
  • The Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee should send items dealing with culture to the new CAPS committee and matters of asset management to Corporate Services.

Those were the highlights. Most of the recommendations make a great deal of sense. The committee thought so too. Where it took issue was with some of the names for the committees. Who knows what is meant by Corporate Services? Wouldn’t the MISC quickly become a miscellaneous or catch all committee? And doesn’t Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee better convey what the committee of the whole actually does? There was broad support for keeping the existing names. Only the reversion to CAPS was supported.

Then there was the issue of function. I’m not sure why it was recommended to remove “culture” from the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee. I had wondered if it was because the chair, Joe Swan, so frequently had to declare a conflict of interest since he is executive director of Orchestra London. It’s not as if that committee is overloaded. Although it held extensive hearings over three days during the summer, most of its meetings have been very brief, when indeed it could attract a quorum, with much time being devoted to finding a time for the next meeting. One of its problems has been that it attracts proponents who should more properly go through planning; it gives the appearance of trying to circumvent the legitimate processes. In any case, the decision was to keep cultural matters before IEPC.

On the matter of the Service Review Committee, while some mourned its passing, all agreed that under the circumstances, it was the most reasonable option. Despite Joe Swan’s assertion—when Branscombe had contemplated her resignation as chair—that there were seven members ready to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work on Service Review, staff had its doubts, and none of the seven, whoever they might be, objected.

But Swan did have another matter of governance he wanted to bring forward. For some time now he has been suggesting that council needs an “executive community”. Not that he was a proponent of the old Board of Control. He had opposed it, campaigned against it in fact. He preferred a “strong mayor system”. But he thought an executive committee could bring "shape and focus" to the agenda; he wanted the perspective of new city manager on this. What was his experience?

If he had expected support, he was disappointed. City manager Art Zuidema didn’t see any need to put one committee on a higher level. He was not aware of any municipalities that used this. “The strong mayor system is an American system,” he pointed out. In Canada, mayors, like other councillors, have just one vote. “All committees do important work,” he concluded. He didn’t see any need to elevate one above the others.

Swan was not pleased, but declined to “push the point”. He just saw it as "a mechanism to get the legislative agenda together". He intimated it wasn’t the last that council would hear about this.

It was left to a number of other councillors to really hit the nail on the head when it came to why meetings took so long, usually continuing beyond 11 o’clock. They could have more or fewer meetings, but ultimately the length of the meetings was up to the members. It wasn’t in the staff report, but it should have said “You folks should talk less,” Matt Brown pointed out. He took his own advice, keeping his remarks brief.

Branscombe agreed. In the past term of council, going past 11 o’clock was unusual and that was with 19 members. Now it was standard fare. “I’m disappointed we haven’t accomplished more,” she said. She looked to the mayor and committee chairs to be strict. And people had to do their homework. Why, there were members who didn’t even read the budget, a three quarters of a billion dollar budget!

Of all the councillors, Joni Baechler is the one that is always most prepared, doing the reading, checking with staff, getting background reports and sharing with others should they be amenable. She too stressed the importance of being prepared and contacting staff in advance of the meeting. She lamented the loss of Services Review Committee but appreciated that its demise was inevitable when members were unprepared to accept its recommendations or participate in its deliberations.

The mayor seemed to take all this to heart. They had to become more efficient, not do committee work at council. They had to learn how to work with one another. 

“We should have confidence in our colleagues to make the right decision,” he exhorted them. If they had something to say to the committee, they should go to it, not wait until council. That’s what he does, he pointed out. He has hardly missed any committee meetings. It was getting so that committees relied on him for quorum.

It was a telling observation. What initially seemed like a good strategy to learn all there is to learn about the ins and outs of council has quickly become a means of control over the committees. Why indeed should the committee members take responsibility, read their reports, do their homework when the mayor simply takes over? He has an opinion on everything, and is usually the first to speak on a topic.

Ironically, it is only on his own committee, Finance and Administration, where he doesn’t always get his way. It has strong, well-prepared members like Hubert, Branscombe and Baechler. It is also one of the most efficient committees.

There were a few other observations. Councillor Dale Henderson wondered why they didn’t review committee appointments yearly; he seemed oblivious to the fact that appointments to standing committees are already made on a yearly basis. 

Councillor Sandy White wondered what they would do if the meetings still went past 11 o’clock. It was a health and safety issue, she insisted. Why, she has almost reported the situation to the Ministry of Labour. 

Fontana reminded her that they had to vote to go past 11 p.m. She could always vote no.

She and Paul VanMeerbergen had arrived late, about halfway through the meeting which had started at 4 p.m. They are frequently late for meetings at that time, no doubt because of work requirements. Yet neither objected to holding the in camera portion of council meetings at 4 p.m.

The meeting concluded well before 6 p.m. helped, no doubt, by the fact that three members failed to say anything at all, and a fourth, no more than a couple of words.

And Stephen “Full-time” Orser didn’t attend at all.


Anonymous said...

Probably the fact that Orser did not attend had lot to do with this meeting going smoothly.

Another blog tells us that Orser called in that he was too tired to attend after fighting the fire at the McCormick Factory.

Fighting fires is not usually the work of councilors, is it?

Maybe there should be a new Fire Fighting Committee of city council so that poor Orser does not have to go out all alone to save the city.

It's lucky that Orser works full time because you never know when things will catch on fire.

Ward Four Worrier said...

Steve's absence was the unkindest cut of all!

Veteran Observer said...

If the Mayor "trusts his colleagues to make the right decision," he should remain silent and listen at committee meetings. Perhaps he would learn something.

Full-time taxpayer said...

Don't be too hard on poor Steve. I think it's cute that he still likes to play with his fire trucks.

Interested Party said...

This is a comment posted in the London Free Press today, posted by: tree street

"Gina Barber was a powerhouse of preparedness and forward thinking for her constituents and for London as a whole (she was never my councillor so I have no axes to grind). She saw things clearly and at no time did I ever get the impression she had developers interests first on her list of who to help. She called a spade a spade and you knew where she stood. She worked hard and intelligently and she still uses that ethic in the interest of Londoners. We're lucky she's still interested and has her finger on the pulse of London."

I will second that sentiment.

Anonymous said...

How much money has the city of london spent supporting all these committees and contributing to their projects?. These people are public servants. Their job is to help the public at this time, not to help themselves to money out of the public purse. Has that money been used to served the public? It sure as hell doesn't seem like it to me.
What exactly is the point of paying property taxes? Is it just sort of like paying a blackmailer so we can remain living in our own home and plant a tree, or paint our door PURPLE?

Anonymous said...

Swan opposed the Board of cONtrol? Ran against it? What a bunch of bull feathers.