Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Committees - Just What Is Their Purpose?

It's the time of year when the committees for the following year are established. The Cities Act (Section 55) gives a city council the authority to establish council committees. Theoretically, these committees take questions and ideas from council and flesh them out, then come back with recommendations for council.

Traditionally, committees deal with a wide range of issues - Prince Albert has had committees or boards that deal with institutions that are funded in whole or in part by the city, such as the library, the golf course, the Art Hauser Centre, and the museum, to name a few. There are also committees to deal with various city responsibilities, such as the Board of Police Commissioners, Fire and Emergency Services, Waste Management, and District Planning. And there are also provincial or regional committees that require city representation, such as the provincial 911 Advisory Committee, the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association Board of Directors, and the Saskatchewan Airport Authority.

With this current council, we've had a committee explosion. There are forty-seven committees on the listing that I received in my last council package, including all of the committees above, plus such new and relatively narrow in scope committees as the Beautification Committee, the Spotlight on Seniors Fair Committee, and the Street Naming Advisory Committee. Other committees didn't make this list, because no-one has been appointed to them, or they haven't met. The total number of committees, boards and commissions for the city is sixty-six. That's a lot of committees. Not all of these have members of council on them (the Board of Revision and the Development Appeals Board specifically exclude council members); some have not met in the past year, which makes one wonder why they exist.

With nine members of council, that would mean that each member should be on at least seven or eight committees, because some committees have more than one council member. I'm currently on eleven committees, some of which take more time than others (some committees meet monthly, some less often, some not at all). As well, if you take on the additional responsibilities of chairing or co-chairing a committee, that adds to the workload.

I wouldn't have a problem with this if committees, particularly the city-centred ones, functioned as they should - taking issues from council, discussing them, and then bringing back recommendations to council. But it doesn't always work that way. I chair the Housing Advisory Committee, which would seem to be a logical place to discuss, for example, the city's condo conversion policy. This didn't happen. The housing committee does meet, but there doesn't seem to be any direct connection to decisions that are made at council.

The Cities Act also requires that committee meetings be public, and that public notice be provided for these meetings. The city web-site even has a place for this - for the most part, it's blank. And the city buys space in the local paper on a regular basis, which would be another logical place for this information. But it isn't happening. We, as a council, are not meeting this basic requirement under our legislation, and nobody seems to be too concerned about this. In contrast, check out the City of Saskatoon web-page - it provides lists of committee members, plus upcoming meetings (including locations), agendas, and meeting minutes.

This annual committee exercise should be taken as an opportunity to delete committees that aren't functioning - of the sixty-six I counted, at least eleven did not meet in the past year, which makes one wonder how necessary they are to the city. It's also an opportunity to move councillors around, to vary their experience and exposure to city issues - this used to happen every year, as council as a whole would discuss committee membership, and review applications from the public. It's also the opportunity to remove people from committee lists who have not attended any meetings - or at least, to check to see if they are still interested. However, the committee appointments for next year are identical to last year, and the non-functioning committees still exist, at least on paper.

Another problem that I have with these committees is that often, city employees are appointed, not as resource people, but as actual voting members. Another concern is that non-city residents have been appointed to committees - somehow, I think that their stake is less than someone who actually will have to pay the taxes to support whatever recommendations may make it to council.

What got me going on this was a suggestion at council that I had no right to make comments on the city's waste management program because I had attended only two of the eight committee meetings held this year. Not only is this wrong (my total for this calendar year is three - still not stellar), but it also misses the larger picture. Of the twenty meetings of this committee held during this council time period, I've attended 13 - not an A+ rating, I agree, but a respectable C+. As well, what wasn't noted by the councillor who raised the issue was that the meeting days were changed from Wednesdays to Thursdays, to accommodate the other councillor on the committee, who does play-by-play for the Raiders on Wednesdays during the hockey season. The committee accommodated his request, which made it more difficult for me to attend meetings, since the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee, on which I represent the city, also meets on Thursdays, often the same Thursday of the month, and these meetings are anywhere from Rosthern to Lloydminster, which can make it difficult to get back.

I don't expect other councillors to make every meeting of every committee that they're on. Not only are there inevitable time conflicts when there are so many committees, but people have lives and families too. I'm no exception - I'm sure that most people would understand that I missed one Waste Management Meeting because Andrea had a dance recital the same evening.

But I do expect that, if you're on a committee, you make every attempt to make as many meetings as possible. There are councillors on committees who have not made a single meeting of that committee in the past year, or more. There are members of the public on some committees with the same record. In those cases, perhaps it would be wise for these individuals to suggest that they be replaced. And I think that the whole committee system could use a critical look, from all of council, to see what is actually needed. Nobody needs to spend time in meetings thinking of solutions that will never make it to council.

"Committee - a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done." - Fred Allen

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Looking Ahead

Although we seem to have been awash in elections lately, between the federal election last month and the presidential election to the south of us which ended on Tuesday, I thought that this would be a good time to remind people that the civic election will be held in less than a year.

If you're thinking of running for council, now is the time to start figuring out if that is the right decision for you, and I have a few suggestions to help you in making that decision.

First, find out as much as you can about what the job is. I'm amazed when someone who has never attended a council meeting or gone through a civic budget comes in thinking that being a councillor is some sort of ceremonial ambassadorship. It isn't - it's making decisions that will affect every resident of the city, and that means doing a lot of homework.

Go to a council meeting. Get hold of a council agenda, and read through it, and imagine reading through that volume of material every second week for the next three years, making notes on it, and preparing questions and comments. Get a copy of the budget, and go through it, line by line, figuring out what you would support, and what you would trim. Talk to people who are currently on council, and people who have served on past councils - find out what they liked, and what wasn't their favourite part of being on council.

Then, talk to your family. Being on council means giving up evenings and some weekends - prime family time. It's more than just council meetings - committee meetings and related work can take a great deal of time, as can responding to residents' questions and concerns. Depending on whether you have kids, and how old they are, this may have an influence on your decision at this time. When I was first elected, Guthrie was still in junior high - I missed more volleyball and basketball games than I would have wished, and those days are gone forever. And there is a cost to running - you have to put up $100, which you only get back if you receive at least 10% of the votes cast. Depending on how lavish a campaign you want to run, everything costs, from flyers and signs through print, radio and television advertising. You may have friends and relatives who are willing to donate to your cause, or you may wish to bankroll yourself - or some combination of the two.

Then, think about what you can bring to the job. What is your experience in working as part of a committee or non-profit group - a church, or a day-care board, for example. Those kinds of organizations are good preparation for making consensus decisions and managing limited funds wisely. Do you have ideas for some of the chronic problems that plague council - crime, revitalizing downtown, improving infrastructure? We need good ideas to move us ahead. Slogans aren't enough; we need real substance to generate change.

Then, think about what kind of person you are. Are you able to listen to other people's ideas with an open mind? Can you be counted on to fulfil your commitments? Do you handle criticism well? How do you react when someone disagrees with your ideas? Do you have enough courage to vote for what you believe in, not for what the majority wants to do, even if you're the only one voting that way?

Finally, think about how you would handle the inevitable scrutiny and resulting criticism. This is a job that is out in the open, spending public money, and the public has no hesitation in telling you when they think you've made a mistake, and they often do it publicly. In my time on council I've been called, in print, everything from being paranoid and delusional to being comparable to rodents, and there isn't a member of the current council who hasn't been called names. This isn't pleasant, and probably will upset your family more than it upsets you - another factor to consider when you're discussing the opportunity with your loved ones.

That being said, if you still feel that you have something to offer, then start planning how you're going to persuade people to support you. I admire anyone with the courage to put themselves and their opinions out in public, with the goal of making Prince Albert a better place to live.

"He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career." George Bernard Shaw