In the last six months, some of the most interesting and complete investigative journalism into local and regional government has occurred in Focus Magazine by editors Leslie Campbell and David Broadland and on-air with journalist and reporter Ian Jessop of CFAX 1070 Radio.
The ongoing situation in Saanich, reflected by an apparent disconnect between duly-elected Mayor Richard Atwell and some Saanich Council members and senior staff, continues to unfold according to this month’s Focus Magazine. In a follow up CFAX interview with Leslie Campbell and David Broadland of Focus, it appears that relations between the Mayor and some senior staff are still strained and some Council members remain unmoved by what seems to be an untenable working environment.
If I was a Saanich resident, I would be asking two key questions:
- Why don’t staff and Council support an independent public review?
- How does this affect the ongoing ability of staff and Council to conduct municipal business on behalf of Saanich residents and taxpayers?
Some months ago, I wrote an Op-Ed in the Times-Colonist about the importance of keeping a fine balance between the roles of municipal staff and Mayor and Council. While I pointed out that they are fundamentally different, I noted that they also have something critically important in common — the need to recognize that good local government must remain accountable and responsible to the public it serves. Without a full public review of Saanich’s municipal organization and internal decision-making hierarchy, it seems unlikely that this tangled web will be easily sorted. What is clear is that the public seems anxious for an explanation and an end to troubled relationships between staff and elected officials.
Ongoing sewage treatment discussions are occurring through the Westside Solutions group and the Eastside Select Committee. Both have worked hard on setting up public engagement activities designed to get good public feedback and input on technology and sites.
I attended one of the Eastside public meetings at UVic on May 30th. Speakers and presenters were knowledgeable, the technical aspects of the presentations were strong and Mayor Lisa Helps set the context by stating that the only given is that the region will treat its sewage. As Chair of the CRD’s Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee and Eastside Select Committee, Mayor Helps opened the session with a positive message about the importance of finding a solution through a process that “works with you and not for you.” She stressed the importance of an “open public process” that happens “not behind closed doors.” She spoke sincerely to participants, stating “your voices, your input…are really, really important…because we have no idea where a plant will go.”
Presenters suggested that a target of July 2015 should produce a shortlist of feasible sites followed by more public input in the fall. Presenters also shared the results of a recent survey on what is most important to the public about sewage treatment and recovery. Most notable were results that show that 31% of respondents cite “removal of harmful substances” at the top of their list, followed by 19% who want “minimum costs to taxpayers.” While it appears that the public are anxious for a solution, safety and public health concerns are key themes.
During the session, an electronic survey of participants was also conducted and results were consistent with earlier survey results above. Over 50% of participants want treatment integrated into neighbourhoods and are open to learning about all possible options for cost-effective, safe and efficient sewage treatment. Water recovery and reclamation were also mentioned. Overall, I was impressed with how well the material was presented and covered and I commend everyone who was involved in designing and supporting the process.
Unfortunately, Saanich is not the only municipality in B.C. with its share of internal challenges. Lantzville, a suburb of Nanaimo, recently lost all but three of its Councillors and its most senior staff because of allegations of behaviour unbecoming of elected representatives, public humiliation of staff and a lack of decorum (I assume in Council Chambers). This situation required the unprecedented step of Ministerial intervention by the Province. What strikes me as most odd is that a husband and wife team serves together on Council, the husband as Mayor and his wife as Councillor. Is it just me or does this unusual situation seem potentially fraught with problems and conflicts?
Next on the naughty list is Grand Forks, where the comings and goings and comings again of the Chief Administrative Officer and associated costs to taxpayers continues to draw attention. That, coupled with alleged infighting among Council members, appears to have created a storm of local controversy that, according to media reports, is still unresolved.
In my opinion, as a former three term Councillor, such difficulties risk the integrity of local government, tarnish the reputation of good people who serve as staff and as elected representatives and diminish local democracy. Regretfully, dysfunction on this scale does little to restore public faith in politicians. Is it any wonder why some communities seem disengaged, why voter turn-out in local elections is chronically low and why there is a pervasive undercurrent of cynicism among some residents and taxpayers, especially young people?
While preparing this post, I came across an interesting and thought-provoking website published by Vancouverite Laila Yuile, an independent blogger, writer and political commentator at lailayuile.com. In her latest post, titled “Cities Shying Away from the Public,” she argues the importance of residents remaining engaged in civic politics. “…the lack of accountability in government at every level has come up often…there’s never a lack of material when it comes to civic politics. So why are so many people asleep at the wheel?” she asks.
Ms. Yuile bluntly points out that “the people you elected last fall are now serving four-year terms and the decisions made by mayors and councils often impact our lives directly–and not always for the best. You’re doing yourself a disservice when you don’t pay attention to civic decisions.” She doesn’t stop there and goes on to scold local government, asserting that “…lack of attention is just fine with some civic politicians because the less you are paying attention, the easier their jobs are. And perhaps that’s part of why getting accountability on their actions (or inaction) and what should be public information is increasingly difficult.” She observes that “between websites that are difficult to use, councils that eliminate question periods, and a lack of meaningful public consultation, there’s a strong sense of disconnect among many residents across Metro Vancouver.”
Ms. Yuile underscores the importance of unfettered public access to civic politicians and a growing concern about the use of in-camera meetings “that are closed to the public [and] are being used for matters that are beyond the limited scope of what merits a closure.” She believes that poor public practice sends a message to residents, one that is “interpreted as, your voice does not matter.” She concludes “City hall isn’t just about political vision — it’s about serving the needs of the community.” I couldn’t agree more.
While some of her arguments and observations paint a negative picture of civic affairs in Metro Vancouver, and may even sound familiar to some in Greater Victoria, my message is more positive — get and stay involved in local decision-making. The public should never be left to feel that they are on the outside looking in. Hopelessly idealistic? Perhaps, but I will always believe that a well informed and engaged public means that local Councils will do a better job, striving to make well informed decisions based on meaningful public consultation. There are many public engagement tools that Councils have at their disposal that include:
- volunteer committees and commissions.
- task forces, working groups and special events/projects/initiatives.
- regular town hall and neighbourhood meetings.
- public hearings.
- delegations, presentations and question periods.
- annual municipal hall open houses.
- well populated and easy to navigate websites.
- webcasting and social media.
Becoming a volunteer on a municipal committee or commission, joining a community association or attending regular Council meetings are all opportunities to get involved and make a difference to your community and to civic government. Whether you are 20 or 80, you have skills and knowledge worth sharing. What I learned while serving in civic government is that good communication and citizen participation are key to good government (particularly in the case of smaller civic government). Citizens can make a difference and they do, every day. Don’t forget, local government is the best example we have of democracy in action. Please stay tuned in to the action!