Restore standing committees
The agenda for the final meeting of the Committee of the Whole in 2017 filled 468 pages. It included a 187-page report on development charges, an update on the County’s progress toward meeting its Corporate Strategic Plan, and a review of the municipality’s third quarter financial performance among 15 matters listed for discussion. Important issues.
An hour of the meeting was given over to presentations to council by various groups and individuals. Another hour was spent reviewing development charges with consulting economist Andrew Grunda, leaving an hour and three quarters on the remainder of the agenda.
November’s meeting was longer than usual, but not vastly so. It is not uncommon that council members are presented with 200 hundred pages or more of materials to be read, considered and reflected upon, a few days before a meeting. Typically, there are two committee of the whole meetings per month. As well as two formal council meetings. And two planning meetings. The last planning meeting of 2017 ran 146 pages—considering 10 land use applications.
Furthermore, council members are also required to sit on couple of external committees such as the board of health or social services. A few hundred more pages to consume each month. We shall talk about the time writing and preparing these reports in another column.
It’s all a lot of material to digest. Too much, I suggest. Council meetings rarely extend past three hours—whether it’s 100 pages or 468. Plenty is being lost. Much never reaches the consciousness of your representatives.
Many hours spent preparing reports, that aren’t read, framing policies and decisions that few understand. How do we know this is true? Because in nearly every meeting a council member puts his or her hand up to ask a question for which the answer was spelled out in the first couple of pages of the package.
Until 2009, Council’s first look at new business was through its standing committees. These were a subset of council, typically composed of five to eight council members. Each committee dedicated its work to examining one aspect of County business ranging from finance, works, planning and community services.
Mostly these committees worked well. Each had appointed a council member as chair who worked with staff to prepare and assemble the matters to be discussed. They became intimate with the processes inside the bureaucracy as well as the growing impatience or interest of the community of an issue under consideration.
Residents with a particular issue or concern were invited to the appropriate committee to present their case. Council had more time to consider the files on their desk because the workload was divided among their colleagues. They could burrow into a particular issue, expenditure or operation in a way council simply can no longer do. Other council members could, and did, attend when the subject under discussion cut close to home. As could any member of the public.
Council retained the final decision-making authority while committees provided a critical vetting function.
Problems arose with the standing committee structure, however, when council fractured over the size of council issue (There were other issues, but that was the big one.) Trust around the council table had eroded dramatically. No longer did their colleagues assume the standing committee members were conducting business fairly. So much so that a great many matters decided at the standing committee stage had to be relitigated all over again at council meetings a week or so later—occasionally pushing these evening meetings into the wee hours of the next day.
There were other ways to fix this problem, but Mayor Peter Mertens opted to do away with the dedicated committees, choosing instead the committee of whole. If council members couldn’t trust each other to act in good faith, they would be forced to sit through every report, every file and every deputation.
While it may have served to rub councillors’ noses in the mess they had made, it has not served the institution well over time.
Procrastination comes naturally when a 400-page document is put in your hands. It’s too easy to skim through and scan the headlines. It is, also, too temptingly easy to tuck unpopular and contentious issues after page 226 in the agenda, knowing they likely won’t be widely read and the risk of it spilling into a big, open debate is low. There is simply too much material in an $80 million business for every council member to absorb individually.
The simple truth is that it doesn’t happen. Far too often council asks questions that are answered in the document before them. That they’ve had for a week.
Now that the issue of council size has been laid to rest, it is important that we use our large complement of representatives effectively. We can continue to tax the attention span of each of them on every matter that surfaces at Shire Hall. Or we can divide up the work—into centres of concentration. If we must have such large council, let us use them well.