The municipal Council have had a lot to deal with recently. In the last Committee of the Whole meeting, issues discussed included a new Official Plan, Budget issues, an Economic Development Review, the future of a heritage building, the annual report on Kemptville’s water supply, and a number of other topics. The briefing package which is given to Council containing all the materials they need to review for a meeting, ran to 265 pages last week. This week’s Council package was 243 pages long. That’s a lot of reading to get through in the few days before making decisions in Council.
For the public, these packages are made available on the municipality’s website on the Friday before the Monday night meetings, not a lot of time to know what’s happening that week, and whether there is anything coming up you need to be aware of. The issues raised in these packages can have long-term consequences for residents, such as the upcoming Official Plan review. The Municipality, meaning in this case, primarily municipal staff, have decided that an update is not good enough. These plans are meant to be updated every five years, but this time it will be a repeal and replace process.
There is more about the municipal plans for the future elsewhere in this issue, but here I wanted to point out the workload that our Council has to carry on a weekly basis. I have said it many times before, but it seems to me an almost impossible job for each member of Council to adequately come to grips with the issues they face, given the time constraints and the many responsibilities outside of formal meetings which they have to meet.
Municipal staff, and possibly councillors also, will perhaps not agree with this, but it seems that the most important people in setting the agenda for North Grenville are not our elected council, but municipal staff, in particular, our Chief Administrative Officer, Brian Carré. We are fortunate in having as CAO someone who has the experience and expertise to carry out that position with more than average ability. Someone else in that position might not be as able, and then the situation would indeed be serious.
Many of the complaints that are heard about Council’s decisions (see the article about the response on Facebook to the Vichos honey story) are not, in some ways, Council’s fault. They are burdened with so many issues, so much information to absorb in a short time, that very often they simply have to accept staff recommendations, without necessarily being able to fully grasp the implications of their vote.
This is not a reflection on the abilities, commitment, or attitude of individual councillors, which, of course, vary greatly from one to another. But the system under which they operate is becoming more and more inadequate for the purpose. Asking any five individuals to do that job under those circumstances is unrealistic. Any time this idea has been mooted in the past, there have been assurances from members of Council that, of course, they are perfectly capable of doing the work, but history has shown this to be untrue.
What can be done? Two things spring to mind immediately. Return to a system in which more residents, with the right skills, can be on Committees of Council, to discuss and analyse the issues before they get to Council. Allow these committees to consult with others in the community, draw up recommendations for council, in co-operation with the relevant municipal staff, and then council can discuss and vote based on informed opinion, and not simply in response to staff recommendations.
Secondly, add two members to Council in order to spread out the workload. Council are spending $40,000 on a road to the dog park; that would cover the cost of two councillors this year. Which is the more important item for the community as a whole? Now, naturally, it is not just a matter of numbers: the quality of the councillors is vital too. We need people who know and are involved in the community already, and not just those who would like the idea of being on Council. We need people with vision and energy, not someone to sit in a chair for a decade without coming up with a single idea of their own.
Ego and ambition are not sufficient qualities, we need more from our municipal representatives. We need people who actually listen to the concerns of the public – and act on those concerns. To date, consultation means giving the public a chance to have a say, and then ignoring them and doing what was previously decided upon. The fact that many people dread the idea of a larger council shows how little regard there is abroad for the way things are now. But more of the same is not what is needed; we need a new approach entirely, a new vision of what municipal government is about. It really can happen.