Saturday, February 16, 2013

A New Way of Dealing with Committees

This new council is looking at city committees, and how committee appointments are made, in a whole new way.  We're hoping that the result is a set of committees that are functional, with defined work objectives, and that produce ideas that council can use in making decisions.

There are two types of committees to which council makes appointments.  The first type is external committees - committees that are established by outside agencies, but that require representation from Prince Albert.  The Library Board, the District Planning Commission, and the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee are examples of these.  Our council does not control the functioning of these committees, but council appointees to these committees are expected to keep council updated with new information that might affect Prince Albert.

The committees that are within council's control are called, appropriately, committees of council.  These are set up to be a sounding board for issues that are brought before council, and are expected to give focused discussion on these issues, and make recommendations back to council on decisions that are council's responsibility.  For example, in the past the Housing Committee has been asked to develop policy around the utilization of the Housing Trust Fund.

Our committee review process has three stages.  The first was looking at all of the committees of council to see if there were any that were superfluous because their work was unnecessary, such as the Street Naming Committee, since there is a policy on street-naming in place.  We were able to trim a few of the more than 60 committees on the list in that way.

The second stage is selecting which councillors will be appointed to which committees.  Unlike previous councils, where decisions were made by the mayor, after meeting one-on-one with each councillor, then endorsed by council without any discussion, this council has chosen a more democratic and open process.  First, all members of council were asked to indicate which committees, both external and council committees, that they would be interested in being on.  Then, at last week's Executive Committee meeting, we voted on which councillors should be appointed to each committee, by secret ballot.  In some cases, councillors withdrew from the vote, when they saw the interest of another councillor, so voting wasn't necessary.  In other cases, taking a vote was necessary.  The resulting recommendations will be ratified at the next council meeting on February 25th.

I think that this process is a great improvement.  Everyone had the opportunity to declare their interest, and to see the interests of their colleagues.  Everyone also was able to participate in the decision.  And the voting was done in the open, with the ballot counting done by the city manager.  It was a bit of a time-consuming process, but we got faster as we went along.

Some councillors may be disappointed that they didn't get to be on all of the committees that they expressed interest in, and some may be disappointed that they are no longer on a committee that they have been on for some time.  As with most things in life, changes in perspective can bring new ideas to the table, which should be beneficial.  I've been on the North Central Saskatchewan Transportation Committee for my entire time on council, and while I found it quite educational, and met many good people from other communities and from the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure over the years, I'm sure that the councillor who will replace me on the committee will do just as good a job.

Meetings of committees of council are open to the public, so any councillor that has an interest in the committee, but wasn't successful in getting the appointment, can still attend the meeting, ask questions, and participate in the discussion.  They just can't vote on committee matters, but they can bring forth their ideas when the actual decision is made by council.  I did this quite often in my first term on council, and learned quite a bit, even though I actually wasn't a committee member.

There will be a third stage of this committee review process.  All committees of council will be expected to develop a committee work plan for the upcoming year by the end of April, and report on their activities at the end of the year.  If there is no work plan or report, the committee will be deemed not necessary at this time, and dissolved.

This new council is not afraid of doing things differently, and of including all members in discussions and decisions.  I look at the extra time involved in these discussions as investments in figuring out how to do our jobs better, which should benefit Prince Albert in the long run.  And that, of course, should be the goal of every  member of council.

"Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time." - E.B. White

Sunday, February 10, 2013

SUMA Takeaways

I spent from Sunday until Wednesday last week in Saskatoon at the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association annual meeting, along with several of my council colleagues and the city manager.  Like most conferences, SUMA provides a good mix of formal and informal educational opportunities to learn about how various municipal councils function, and could function better.

I found two of the formal speakers particularly interesting this year.  The first, Darci Lang, a motivational speaker from Regina, set the tone on Monday with an extremely energetic and engaging talk about adjusting one's focus.  Andrea had heard her speak several years ago, and had forewarned me that I might find her a bit too positive and motivational for my taste, so I did try listening with an open mind.  Darci was upbeat, and cheerful, and perky (which I admit I am not known for being), and I, and the rest of the audience, quite enjoyed this learning experience.

What I hope to remember from Darci's talk was the need for council to focus on what we have in common, not on our differences.  I'm sure that each member of council has their own list of goals and targets, and that none of these lists is identical.  I'm also sure that all of these lists have at least some items in common, and perhaps we need to work together on these common goals that we agree on, not spend our energies fighting over what we disagree about.  And hopefully, that way we will accomplish tasks that we all can be proud of, and feel that we were part of.

Also on Monday, George Cuff, a former mayor and councillor from Alberta who has written several books about municipal governance, spoke about the need for councillors to understand that our job is about developing policy and direction, not about micromanaging the details of carrying out that direction - that's for city employees to do.  We have to realize that as council, we are supposed to be leaders, not managers, and not part of the city labour force either.  And we also have to realize that we can't let personal relationships cloud our work as councillors - we need to remain impartial in our dealings with city employees and other agencies.  I quite enjoyed George's talk, but I'm sorry that when I looked around at some of my colleagues, they were more focused on their Blackberry screens than on the good advice that we were being given.

Other presentations that I found worthwhile included a session about moving to single-stream recycling, a question and answer session with the Minister of Health, and a newcomers' session, which outlined our various legislated responsibilities, and included a presentation from the new mayor of Lloydminster, who gave us his perspective on the difficulties being a new mayor and shaking up the status quo.  It was a good reminder of how easy it is for councillors and city administration to become complacent, and how we need to be careful not to fall into an attitude of resistance to change.

And as always, I enjoyed the chance to catch up with old friends from previous years, meet new people, and socialize with my colleagues.  Being on a municipal council is a constant learning experience, and opportunities like SUMA are an excellent chance to learn from your peers, and from experts.  Fortunately, this year provided plenty of fodder for us to use in the coming year - I hope that we use it well.

"The great aim of education is not knowledge but action." - Herbert Spencer