Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Council’s mantra: Beware status quo?

LATEST REPORT #1,127: Against the recommendation of the civic administration, London’s city council last week took a step towards finding a way to make vehicle for hire upstart Uber legal. It’s one more case where the new group elected a year ago this month is challenging the way things have long been done.

Monday, Oct. 5, 2015 – London Ontario

It’s been 40 years since publication of the citizen task force report paved the way for a professional civic administration in London. 

Headed by Robert Mann, a businessman and former city councillor – they were called aldermen back then – the task force recommended, among other things, creation of the position of city manager to head a civil service that was responsible for enacting the policies passed by council. 

There would be a clear separation between the elected policy makers and the hired policy enactors. One would not meddle in the activities of the other. 

Prior to that, city council got involved in running the city in all sorts of ways, including councillors simply picking up the phone and ordering streets to be cleared or parks mowed in their wards. 

The Mann recommendation, once accepted by council, eventually put an end to that. Today council decides, the city manager directs. And in the process, the civic administration has gathered significant expertise and experience which it, in turn, shares with those elected, thereby shaping decisions that ultimate effect how they do their jobs.

Some would argue this process has gone too far, that some civic administration recommendations are self-serving or out-of-date, perhaps both.

Today’s council – it will still be considered new, at least until the first anniversary of their election on Oct. 27 – has certainly been asking questions about that. And pushing back when it considers the advice contrary to its view of what is best for London.

Last week the issue was taxi and limousine regulation. 

For decades it has been London’s policy to tightly regulate the taxi business, controlling the number of cab licenses and adding a mounting list of conditions for both vehicles and drivers. 

Uber, the so-called transportation network company whose smart phone application makes hailing a vehicle for hire an infinitely easier experience – and some argue infinitely better one too – threatens to blow up city’s taxi and limo regime. Understandably, the civic administration has fought back hard against that, using the existing rules, while pushing the elected leaders towards stiffer resolve too.

Last week, though, this council began to question the appropriateness of the administration’s point of view. First it rejected a suggestion – from Josh Morgan, councillor for Ward 7 – that more money be poured into the fight to stop Uber at the gates to the city.

Then, by a vote of 10-5, it ordered the administration to prepare an outline of how a new set of regulations could be crafted that would allow Uber to function in London legally. True, this does not mean such regulations, when crafted, will be automatically approved and Uber wins. But that’s the direction this council is headed – against the advice of its administration.

As Mayor Matt Brown noted afterward: “(Uber) is not going away. Without this additional information, we’re looking at the status quo, and that’s not something we can expect moving forward.”

His comments were clearly in the context of the Uber challenge to existing city rules, but it there are indications his colleagues see the world that way.

Certainly this isn’t the first time a London city council has challenged the administration. It’s not even the first time this council has done so; the previous time of note was the decision not to protect the city’s borders from encroaching residential development from adjacent municipalities.

But the tone of this council appears to tilt against the status quo and toward questioning how and why things are done. As a result, expect more to be overturned in the remaining three years of the term. At some point this is going to cause a significant ruckus with the leadership of the civic administration.  

The times, they are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan famously sang many years ago – about the same time, in fact, Mr. Mann and colleagues were drafting their famous report. Whether this is another case of the more things change the more they stay the same, or one of systemic alteration will be something citizens will need to watch.