Sunday, September 16, 2012

Red Herrings

At this week's council meeting, there was successful deployment of the red herring strategy to avoid an issue.  It was so successful that the local paper reported extensively on the herring, completely distracted from the issue at hand.

The issue was the motion made by one councillor to cancel council and executive meetings before the end of the term in October, claiming that because the civic election is held that month, it would then be the "silly season", so council shouldn't bother meeting.  The current mayor did this for the last election, as well, although previous councils have been able to manage to keep on doing the work that they are paid for, as well as carry on with the personal work of campaigning.

I objected to this.  In effect, council has given itself extra paid vacation, so that those who are running for re-election can focus on that, rather than on working for their full term.  And for those who have decided to not let their names stand, well, they get to leave work early, with pay.

The fact is, the city runs twelve months of the year, and issues are ongoing.  I think that the most important work of council, the open discussion of issues and solutions, happens at council meetings, when the public has the best opportunity to see its representatives at work.

So I asked if all our work would come to a halt - would committees stop meeting, or would the mayor stop using his tax-payer funded office?

Rather than answering my question, or even providing concrete reasons why we shouldn't meet in October, I was instead the subject of a very personal attack, focusing on the fact that I'm not on as many committees as other members of council are, and am thus not carrying my fair share of the load.

This, of course, is the red herring that distracted the local paper, which didn't bother to speak to me before they ran the article.

If they had, I would have told them a number of things, as well as reminding them of the issue that I raised.  First, this mayor is the one who decides who is on which committee.  It is supposed to be a decision made by council, but this is one of the cases where council has been used as a rubber stamp.  He has removed me, without any discussion, from several committees that I spent several years on, and where I felt there was useful work done.  The two committees that I am currently on are both external committees, and require a full day and out of town travel to attend meetings.  That's a bit more of a commitment than attending a meeting over the lunch hour every few months, or being on a committee that never meets.

Yes, some council members are on committees that have never met.  Some councillors have been named to committees, but have never attended a meeting.  Being on a committee may look good on the resume, but the work happens only if you show up.

Some committees have been established as a place for deeper discussion, with members of the public, of matters that have been referred to them by council.  However, I can't recall the last time that this council referred anything to a committee for discussion.  One wonders what the purpose of having so many committees is, except to pad the resumes of some members of council.  And, I suppose, as fuel when personal attacks are considered to be the best option for avoiding a difficult question.

I've been on most of the major committees in my twelve years on council.  In my first term, I attended every committee meeting that I could, even those that I wasn't on, just to learn as much as I could about how the city worked.  I no longer feel the need for this sort of immersion learning, and with the sheer number of committees that have been created, I don't think that it would be possible.

I wish that council would do an overview of all committees, decide which ones are actually doing useful work, and disband the rest.  Then we should have a full discussion, in council, about how best to distribute committee work.  Until we do that, committee appointments will continue to be handed out like favours, with some members of council afraid to rock the boat in case they get removed from a committee that they feel is important.  They don't have to look far to see the likelihood of that happening.

In the meantime, our real work, council and executive meetings, will be suspended, and I still don't have a good explanation as to why that is necessary.  But we've had a good example of how easily distractions about busy-work can obscure the real issues.

"It's not so much how you are busy, but why you are busy.  The bee is praised; the mosquito is swatted."- Marie O'Connor 

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