The council bubble and the edge of uncertainty

Uncertainty seems to define our times. It may well be the theme of this civic election.

I saw it on the faces of the residents at a meet-the-mayoral-candidates forum at the Oaklands Community Centre this week. Lots of questions, comebacks, skepticism, challenges–uncertainty, but also keen interest and curiosity.

There is much disappointment, even anger over some of the decisions of the current mayor and council. Some people feel the development lobby or other special interests get priority over the rest of us at city hall. Others are happy with the current direction of our civic government and think they should sail ahead, perhaps with a few small course corrections.

Yes, we want leaders who are honest, who are straight up, who will put us, the people of the city, before other interests.

What else? People who know something about the complexities of planning and development, council’s primary levers of influence that shape the city for many years to come. Also those who understand fiscal responsibility, taking care of our tax dollars, which has evaded not just this, but previous councils–witness the Blue Bridge cost overruns, the failure to capture a fair share of the development windfall for city coffers.

The fiscal case speaks in favour of a new broom. The old guard may continue with finances as in the past, but an eager new group may want to scrutinize and overhaul spending and revenue.

And if the new council is inclined to do the forensics, they may want to check out a related issue, the revolving door at city hall. Besides police chief Frank Elsner and city manager Jason Johnson, we’ve seen an outflow of senior and lower-level employees in recent years.

Twenty-six senior managers departed between January, 2013 and December, 2016, at a cost of $3 million in severance, according to Grumpy Taxpayer$, an advocacy group dedicated to government accountability.

Those of us who have made up our minds about who they’re voting for can take a breath. Those of us who haven’t still have some thinking to do. The outcome may rest on the undecided and the way we swing our votes in the final days.

People who have been to many council meetings or watched too many online may have some other ideas about the kind of leaders we want.

Some times council sessions go well past midnight on a day when they start meeting at 9 am in committee. Yes, they’re a little punch drunk at 12:30 a.m., who wouldn’t be? Maybe that’s why some poor decisions are made, at an hour when these folks should be in bed like the rest of us.

And they seem to live in a bubble–is there enough oxygen in there? They are almost unfailingly polite to each other, like a high school debating club, except in my high school, there were more rules about time limits and staying on point.

They have a tendency to follow the leader, the flow, looking for direction to each other and to senior staff, who occupy the sides of the horseshoe at the council table.

Speaking of staff, here’s a typical compliment at a council meeting:

STAFF PRESENT: ·         J. Jenkyns – Acting City Manager,

·         C. Coates – City Clerk ,

·         P. Bruce – Fire Chief,

·         J. Tinney – Director of Sustainable Planning & Community Development,

·         T. Soulliere – Director of Parks, Recreation & Facilities,

·         B. Eisenhauer – Head of Engagement,

·         C. Havelka – Deputy City Clerk,

·         C. Mycroft – Manager of Executive Operations,

·         P. Martin – Council Secretary,

·         T. Zworski – City Solicitor,

·         and A. Johnston – Planner

That’s easily $500 an hour, but it’s only money–well spent if meetings are to the point and on topic, but not if councillors insist on micro-managing trivia and repeating at 10 p.m. what they said a few hours earlier in committee. As one local observer said, “they have to learn to steer, not paddle.”

Does council need to debate whether they should proclaim an “Etsy Makers Cities Week,” to celebrate devotees of an online shopping site for crafts? Eventually the mayor brought this weighty issue to a close by moving to delete the word Etsy from Chris Coleman’s motion because it was a commercial plug. They ended up approving Maker Cities Week by a 5-3 vote. Pass the smelling salts.

Sometimes, councillors will argue strenuously against a motion and then vote in favour. We saw this over the Sir John A statute debate, in which only Geoff Young voted No. We see it in development projects. It seems confusing to people who watch from the gallery, as if these council members want it both ways, like the old Spanish expression, si pero no.

The bubble encircles the City staff–or maybe they keep it inflated. Those outside this inner circle, in the neighbourhoods, which are only a few blocks away, might as well be in another country. They do speak another language, English, while City planners speak Planerese. Before you figure out what Floor Space Ratio (FSR at City Hall) means, the development next door is a done deal.

The residents must be dealt with, listened to, but the attitude seems to be, we know the bike lanes and the way we planned them is best, we know these developments are the right thing, those cranky neighbours, they don’t even understand FSR.

How do I know the planning department was determined to push through the Cook Street Village development two years ago, opposed by many in the neighbourhood, including a large majority of the local business people who stepped forward? Because, in a moment of candor, the planner in charge told me so.

On the bike lanes, I attended some of the early meetings when the project was still called Biketoria. That name was ditched when the City realized it gave away the game–it was all about cycling, not a balanced transportation network to accommodate all users. The stated purpose at one Biketoria gathering at the conference centre was the urgency to get the entire 24- kilometer cycling network built before “Citizens Against Virtually Everything” could get in the way.

Now those CAVE people are up in arms. Mayoral candidate Stephen Hammond says the bike lanes are the number one issue on the doorstep.

The truth is, people who ride bikes really are the heroes of the road, but the noble idea of cyclist safety was botched by cranky resistance to change fueled by the City’s bull-headed attitude of my way or the ditch.

On many fronts, the stakes are high, the walls closing in. The housing gap just gets worse each year, as the City approves high-end projects while Rome burns. The bottom end of the pyramid, homelessness, threatens to overwhelm Burnside Gorge and parts of downtown. Which neighbourhood is next? This is the classic double-edged sword–the homeless people are suffering and the neighbours are suffering. Both deserve care.

Not that long ago, we had business leaders on council who understood spreadsheets, budgets and senior staff recruitment. Now they run in the other direction if you mention civic politics. One such business owner considered a bid for council last spring, but thought better after he met with the mayor and concluded it was unlikely the late night talkfests could be reformed.

New ideas and directions are needed at the top to repurpose and reinvigorate our city’s leadership. Maybe next election, more community-minded businesspeople and more of our best and brightest in other fields will want to join the club.

I could put together a city council dream team: a combination of the best incumbents, a few leaders of the neighbourhood planning groups and the business community, including local developers who care about this city, like Mohan Jawl, who with his family builds some of the best local projects and has substantially supported the Burnside-Gorge Community Association and other worthy causes.

But enough of dreams–back to reality. We have only days left to check over the candidates and make our final choices. Two councillors, Coleman and Margaret Lucas have retired, opening up their council seats. Now it’s up to voters to decide whether two new faces are enough.