Thursday, July 3, 2008

Playing by the Rules of the Game

When you were a kid (or older), did you ever play Monopoly? Did money collected from various taxes go into the centre of the board, and get claimed by whoever landed on Free Parking? Did you know that, according to the Monopoly rules, that's not supposed to happen? So if you knew the real rules, but were playing at someone's house who played a slightly more flexible game, you might be a bit confused. A lot of games are like that, with the same basic rule framework, but individual quirks that might be regional or just have passed into common use. But you have probably experienced just how frustrating it is when you think that you're following one set of rules, then find out that the other people around the table have a different set of rules, or maybe no rules at all.

City Council operates under a hierarchy of rules as well. The broadest, and the ones that aren't written down, are our principles - things like being open and accountable to the public. Next broadest is the Cities Act, the provincial law that governs things like how elections are run, bylaw procedures, financial administration, and public accountability. Within the city, we pass bylaws relating to specific matters within our powers - zoning, utility rates, tax levies. More operationally, we have policies that govern how we make decisions, to try to ensure that all residents are treated equitably.

Within this framework of principles, legislation, bylaws and policies, the city operates. Our decisions, and the way that we make them, are governed by these rules. If we claim to follow the rules, but don't, our credibility and functioning suffers badly.

Where I've been having difficulties, is that quite often, the rules of the game seem to be ignored, or changed without telling everybody at the table. This may be due to the large number of people on this council who were brand new to council when they were elected, and some may have had difficulty in understanding that city council is not a private business - many of the rules of our game are different. And it may just be that they're not aware of all the rules, or of the importance of following them. When I first was elected, I had the opportunity to attend a Municipal Leadership conference that provided newly elected council members from across the province with an overview of their responsibilities. It was truly eye-opening. I don't know if the newer members of council have had this opportunity, which may be part of the problem.

That's why I think having an audit of current city practices against our current legislation, bylaws and policies would be useful. I think that it would be enlightening for everyone on council to have an overall view of how we should be operating, and where we're not following the rules, rather than having concerns brought up in a piecemeal fashion, and then argued about, which seems to be what has been happening lately.

As one example of an area where we aren't following the rules, the Cities Act says that, with a few exceptions, council and committee meetings are required to be conducted in public (Section 94, Public Accountability). Past practice of council was that notification of all committee meetings was public, and I regularly got notice of, and attended, committee meetings even when I wasn't a member of the committee. I found it a great way of learning more about how the city operates, and about the variety of issues that we have to deal with. However, in the past two years, I haven't received notice of meetings of committees of which I am not a member, and I haven't seen public notification of these meetings either. So we're in contravention of the Cities Act (Section 96), and also not following an established policy, which was developed to help ensure that committee meetings were open to the public.

The City of Saskatoon underwent such an audit a few years ago, done internally, and found several areas where they were not following their own rules. They now do this on a regular basis, to ensure that everyone on council is kept aware of the rules. In 2003, the City of Lethbridge had an outside consultant do a corporate review on how council and city administration could better function together, which is quite interesting reading.

Obviously, an internal review would be much more economical than hiring a consultant, but we might be best served by someone not connected with the city to do this, to ensure impartiality.

I will be making a motion that we do this at the next council meeting, July 14. Let me know if you agree that this would be a worthwhile thing for us to do.

"The shortest and surest way to live with honour in the world , is to be in reality what we would appear to be." - Socrates

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