Monday, February 16, 2009

Leadership versus Micromanagement

No council meeting this week, although normally in a week when there's a statutory holiday, the meeting is held on the Tuesday following the holiday. I guess that the powers that be decided that we could skip a week, rather than getting on with the business of council.

At last week's executive committee meeting it was somewhat disconcerting to discover that, despite the significant and ongoing meter service charge and infrastructure charge increases for residential users (8%, compounding every year, until 2013), which were intended to create a reserve fund for eventual replacement of our aging water service infrastructure, this hasn't happened. Instead of building a reserve, that reserve now shows a negative balance of more than 4.6 million dollars, more than 2 million greater than last year. No question that, if the increase had included the 700 commercial users in the city, not just residential users, the hole wouldn't be as deep. That was why I voted against Bylaw 41 of 2007 - not that I wasn't in agreement with funding water infrastructure improvements, but I wasn't in agreement with only applying the increase to residential users.

If we had also chosen to charge for water usage at an even rate, or added on a surcharge after a certain volume, rather than decreasing the per cubic metre charge as usage gets higher (in effect encouraging large users to use even more) the situation might not be as serious. But this council chose to put the burden of creating a reserve on residential users, even though an updated water system would certainly benefit the city as a whole. And even more concerning, it doesn't sound as though this issue will be addressed in this year's budget - apparently there just isn't time.

As far as I'm concerned, if the direction that we've chosen to go isn't solving the problem, we should be making time to figure out what we can do, not just throwing our hands up in the air, and blaming a lack of time.

Another issue that came up at executive, that's at the other end of the spectrum, was asking for approval to change the identification crests used by building inspectors. Cost of doing this - in the neighbourhood of $100. You might wonder, as did one of my colleagues on council, why city administration thinks that it's necessary to bring these matters before council - we're certainly not experts on such details, and it's hard to imagine how many of us would even notice the change. It's also kind of ironic, considering that last summer we blithely handed over decision making on contracts for the construction of the soccer centre, contracts that will total in the millions of taxpayers' dollars, to the city manager, but approval for an expenditure of $100 comes before council.

I'm not trying to blame city staff for this confusion. It's probably hard for them to figure out what matters they can handle on their own, and what matters some members of council feel that they should approve every detail of, based on some of the direction that they have received over the past couple of years.

And that brings me back to a concern that I've raised here before - I'm not sure that all members of council understand what the job of city council is. It's to lead, not to micromanage every decision made by city staff. We should be setting the overall direction, and figuring out how to get there. City staff should be trusted to make day-to-day decisions, whether it's how to plow streets, or which infrastructure needs are most crucial. Our job should not be adding project after project, until nothing gets done well, because there's more to do than time or money will allow. And when it's brought to our attention that there's a problem that's beyond the scope of city staff to resolve, we should be able to sit with senior staff to brainstorm ideas that will provide good, doable solutions, with the well-being of the city as a whole, not just certain sectors, in mind.

Until we figure out how to do that, I'm afraid that we'll just keep solving all our problems by increasing taxes or service charges, or adding to our debt load, leaving it to future councils to figure out how to keep the water running and the garbage picked up, because we thought that we could have it all, whether we truly needed it or not.

"The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails." - John Maxwell

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