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On Governance

Governance – an issue I’ve been trying to highlight throughout my term at city Council – is a topic that is rarely seen as deserving attention.  Former Councillor Chris Coleman and I used to lament that governance is too often the least appreciated tool, and the most boring of issues on which to run a campaign.

It seems that governance has finally attracted the attention, and been given the importance, it has always deserved.

Two years ago city Council asked external consultants to evaluate the city’s governance structures.  You can read their full report at https://pub-victoria.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=82560

At yesterday’s committee of the whole meeting, councillors received the report and questioned the authors.  The report proposes 30 recommendations, with which I generally agree.  I was prepared to discuss the merits and act on them yesterday, but Council decided to forward the recommendations to a Council workshop on September 8.

These recommendations are generally aimed at improving efficiency and public participation, and, as a start, I’m particularly enthusiastic about:

  • Clearly delegating administrative authority to the city manager, and exploring more delegation to staff
  • Creating initial and ongoing governance training for Council members
  • Evaluating the utility of council appointments to external boards and committees
  • Establishing a code of conduct (which I proposed in 2012, along with former Councillor Coleman and Councillor Thornton-Joe – we were crushed by council)
  • Refining the agendas of the Committee of the Whole, daytime and evening Council meetings.

In addition to the report’s 30 recommendations, the 920 individuals – about 1% of Victorians – who participated directly in survey responses, written submissions, in person and virtual public events and stakeholder focus groups had some critical comments about the city’s governance, and some clear ideas for its improvement.

A few stand out for me.

Orientation for new councillors must include extensive education about their roles, responsibilities and the reality of municipal governance, including the limitation of municipal authority, with regular updates offered throughout the council term. 

Council meetings must be completed in shorter times.  Council deliberations are often lengthy, and sometimes deservedly so.  The complexities of issues facing an increasingly urban city require thoughtful consideration.  I think every Council member believes they have an obligation to give due diligence to decisions that affect the lives of thousands of Victorians, which can mean every councillor needs – and the constituencies they represent need – to be heard.  That said, we could all reduce the time we take on each agenda item if we came to the table a little better prepared, listened to one another a little more so we didn’t ask questions that have already been asked and answered, and didn’t respond to every implied affront – or better yet didn’t create any affronts.  And, as many respondents noted, we do tend to spend a lot of time on administrative details, circular debate and personal passions.

When councillors make final decisions, we should more clearly state why, and on what basis, we are doing so.  Many residents expressed the view that public input is not considered in council’s decisions.  I can tell you that this is not the case.  We diligently read your emails and letters, review your petitions, listen to your phone messages and to each speaker at public forums.  All of that advice is considered along with staff guidance, the city’s policies and priorities, the current realities – and future possibilities – of our city.

We need to share more information with the public about what the city is doing.  And that information has to be in plain language, in many formats, accessible on multiple platforms and media.  Residents shouldn’t be surprised to hear what’s happening in their neighbourhood, as some say happens too often.

There are many more suggestions from the public which have informed the recommendations of the consultants, and as I said, I generally support them all.

Lest we focus only on what needs to be fixed, let’s not overlook that the report did say some of council’s practices are consistent or leading the way compared to other cities.  The report lauded the city’s use of established, current bylaws governing Council procedures; a commitment from Council and the public service to effective, accountable municipal governance; an adaptive response to continue the functions of government and support a rapid recovery from the pandemic; active public engagement guided by IAP2 principles; the “deliberate efforts” to support equity and inclusion and its commitment to Reconciliation; use of public advisory bodies to provide advice and recommendations to Council; and the proactive use of municipal tools to support community well-being.

In any city, the actions of council will always be scrutinized and I think that’s healthy.  This Council was faced with trying to navigate our city through a housing crisis, crashing affordability, and a pandemic – a perfect storm of crises.  Moving forward, Council should embrace new governance protocols to eliminate unnecessary losses of time and inefficient arcane processes, to better prepare for the emerging trials that will inevitably confront our evolving city.

And the Mayor in particular needs to make it a priority to create a Council environment which enables rich, open debate in a chamber of civil discourse, while demonstrating a deep understanding of rules and procedures, and both setting and enforcing procedural and behavioural expectations.

This report on the city’s governance, which the city itself requested, lays out a path to improve the city’s governance and accountability, increase citizen participation, and make city operations and decision-making more easily visible to residents.  I support those goals and these recommendations.  Given the opportunity, I commit to ensuring this work gets done, to sustain a new council operating within a frame of civility, respect and calm.

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