The new Oak Bay Council announced that over the next three months, it will review roles and responsibilities of its advisory commissions and committees, avenues for meaningful volunteer involvement that signifies a commitment to citizen engagement.
A priority of mine during the last municipal election, it makes good sense to review, from time to time, the work of volunteer groups to make sure that they are still effective, efficient and relevant.
It’s gratifying to see that this Council will also consider creation of a new Advisory Planning Commission (APC) as part of the line-up, to better inform land use decisions. Unlike other municipalities in the CRD, until December 2014, Oak Bay had no in-house professional planner to guide land use, preferring instead to rely on spot zoning, to expand the services of the building department and to enlist the help of volunteers. I strongly advocated for such a professional planner, beginning with the 2011 election, and throughout my Council term. An Advisory Design Panel (ADP) largely addressed land use in the Uplands, a Council member chaired a land use section during Council meetings, a building and planning department focused more on technical regulation and contracted professional planners were hired on an “as needed basis” for project-specific work, such as the Official Community Plan review and the Clive Development. In my opinion, this was a piecemeal approach to land use planning that often caused Council to struggle with many development applications.
Having served as a two-term Councillor in another community, I had been accustomed to working with a planning department staffed by professional planners and an Advisory Planning Commission of volunteers who vetted new applications in consultation with and as complementary to the advice of planning staff. The important front end work was therefore already completed before the application came to Council, accompanied by a comprehensive staff report. In Oak Bay, this process was missing, reinforced by a common belief that “we have no development in Oak Bay so why would we need a planner.” Without professional planning expertise, Oak Bay was looking at land use “with one eye closed,” creating a challenge for Council, applicants and the community on major land use decisions.
As of December 2014, Oak Bay has hired its first full time professional planner who will bring much needed expertise, experience and skills to land use in Oak Bay. New development and re-development, (the latter being the single greatest future challenge for this municipality), should now occur within the context of overall community planning. This more holistic approach, combined with a new Advisory Planning Commission, also gives the municipality the “bench strength” it needs to implement the 2014 Official Community Plan and conduct a review of other bylaws such as zoning.
Oak Bay Council will also review the role and responsibilities of the position of Council Liaison, again long overdue. Individual Councillors are appointed by the Mayor as Council Liaison to a variety of local and regional (Capital Regional District) bodies, to represent the best interests of the municipality and provide input on decisions and recommendations made by advisory commissions and committees. The role and the work are important and require understanding and knowledge on the part of individual Councillors and Council as a whole.
Without well defined terms of reference for Council Liaison and clarity about duties and responsibilities, there can be confusion, both for individual Council members and for the community. A big part of the role involves managing expectations of volunteers, stakeholders, partners and the community at large. While it can be tempting, a Council Liaison should be cautious about the use of Council authority to advance specific issues or agendas and should remember that advocacy has its place but should be used wisely to represent everyone. Council Liaison is an agent who serves in a “go to” capacity on behalf of the municipality and Council, interpreting municipal procedures and Council policy, and guiding the work of volunteers.
At the beginning of every new Council’s term, it’s healthy to re-assess work priorities and how they are carried out. Careful reflection is part of strategic planning and finding ways to improve loval government’s program and service delivery that are efficient and effective should always be encouraged. When there are ongoing opportunities for staff and Council to work together on improvements to the organization, on building greater capacity and on becoming “more responsive” and “less reactive” to the needs of the community, this process can only be positive for the future of us all.