BLOG #647: There seems to be general agreement among city council members that the existing governance model isn’t working. The solution lies in council doing less work, rather than work harder; and in each member committing to an honest effort to make whatever model is selected work.
Thursday, April 19, 2012 – London
In 2003, by a margin of 55 per cent to 45, Londoners voted to get rid of Board of Control. By an even greater margin, 76 per cent to 24, they voted to reduce the size of city council from its then 19 members.
Admittedly only 35.9 per cent of those eligible bothered to vote in that election; and even fewer, about 32 per cent, cast ballots on the referendum questions. For that reason – referendum results aren’t binding if fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters take part – city council would wait until the 2010 election to finally eliminate the four-person board and cut council membership to a mayor and 14 councillors.
One of the architects of the 2003 vote was Joe Swan, then completing his second term as a controller. He didn’t stand for re-election and was out of city politics until his return, in 2010, as the councillor for Ward 3.
A lot changed in the seven years he was away. For one thing, council terms now last four years instead of the previous three. Anne Marie DeCicco-Best, mayor for the first decade of the 21st century and a steady facilitator of good council manners, is gone. A brand new governance model was introduced to start the term of the 2010 council winners – to be replaced in December by yet another model.
Now Councillor Swan, as the guy who helped make it happen and who cries victim of consequences, admits council’s way of running itself isn’t working. He’s now talking up yet more change, including creation of an executive committee that would do at least some of the work formerly handled by Board of Control.
That the present system isn’t working has considerable currency among council members, starting with the mayor. Why it’s not working will get you 15 different answers – at least.
So here’s a 16th.
The principle reason the governance system introduced in December, 2010, didn’t work is that the majority of council didn’t want it to. They sabotaged it right from the get go with Mayor Joe Fontana leading the way.
That they could get away with it is one of the back stories of the 2010 election. The progressives on council figured to have a majority once the votes were counted. They didn’t. Mr. Fontana nudged out Ms. DeCicco-Best; Dale Henderson defeated Gina Barber in Ward 9. Instead of a 9-6 majority, the progressives fell behind 8-7.
In many cases Mr. Swan was the swing vote and, having had nothing to do with the task force that recommended the new governance system, he was as keen about it as many of the other newcomers – which is to say, not.
The initial governance model had only three standing committees – essentially for planning and environmental issues, for community service issues, and for finance and administration issues – plus council sitting as committee of the whole for strategic issues.
The idea was for each committee to meet in the late afternoon or early evening on a different day so citizens could attend them all if they wished after work. Committees all met one week, council the following, on a two-week cycle. The push back began even before the 2010 vote when the city clerk’s office said a late afternoon finance meeting wouldn’t leave sufficient time to get a council agenda published by Thursday night. The meeting was moved to Wednesday morning.
Prior to 2010 there were only three standing committees too. The new committees, however were aligned, not with civic administration departments as had previously been the case, but around services which often cut across departments. This caused confusion within the administration and led to the beginnings of a staff reorganization.
Then it became clear the workloads weren’t balanced. The planning committee – its actual name was Built and Natural Environment Committee – often had an agenda larger than all the other committees put together.
So between the uneven workload and skepticism from many councillors about the whole idea in the first place, governance model one began to grind to a halt. Before it actually stopped a council governance committee frantically put together a second model.
It has seven working committees, including one that includes the entire council. Meetings are held in afternoons and evenings on a somewhat irregular schedule. Council now meets every three weeks. The workload still skews heavily towards planning and, somehow, the number of items going through committee and ultimately coming to council seems to have significantly increased. Council meetings of six and seven hours – or longer – have become the norm.
No one is happy. Those who hate the system now openly abuse it. And Mr. Swan, although not totally to blame but who was certainly the public face of the anti-board campaign before the referendum, is now pining, if not for its return, for something similar.
Would an executive committee solve the problem?
Part of what Board of Control used to do was to establish some priorities for council. That, of course, was the reason many councillors wanted it gone. It was perceived as an elitist group that knew better – and, in truth, it sometimes functioned that way and sometimes properly.
But whether you agreed with the board’s choices or not, at least council had some focus which, if nothing else, gave direction to the civic administration. That’s now gone. Today there are competing agendas on the council floor and growing chaos elsewhere in City Hall, a situation complicated by the resignation in January of the city manager, Jeff Fielding, and the recent retirement or departure of several senior officials.
Here’s the rub, however. How would an executive committee be selected and what would it do? This is a council that has become so dysfunctional it couldn’t agree on proper way of selecting a deputy mayor, someone who could at least understudy the mayor’s issues. Instead, by rotation each council member gets to be acting mayor when Mr. Fontana is away or incapacitated but none are privy to the mayor’s agenda.
This week, of all people, the job is filled by Stephen Orser.
So what should council do?
First, the agendas for all committees must be re-focused and reduced. London has a capable administration, well paid in the main; let them do their jobs. That means committees and council need to pass clear policies and scrutinize the budget – then get out of the way.
Second, we don’t need seven standing committees. Planning policy, neighbourhood and social service policy and financial policy would seem to cover the waterfront of active decisions. Those three committees could meet Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights respectively. Council as a whole should continue its strategic policy role, perhaps picking one or two issues as a focus each meeting. One of its main concerns should be economic prosperity and how to attain it.
Third, council should get back to meeting every second week. Tuesday is fine. The strategic committee can meet Monday.
Fourth, and this is key, whatever form of governance is selected, every member of council needs to commit to an honest effort to make it work.