PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
I have a headache
I often have headaches on Thursday evenings. That’s because I usually sit through regional council meetings, and last night’s was a doozy.
It was billed as a committee of the whole session to continue the discussion on governance. It became, well, it wasn’t about governance, that’s for sure.
Let me rephrase that. It sort of was. Politicians actually dealt with a motion to never debate governance again for the remaining two years of this term. That’s right. Had this motion passed (mercifully it did not), they would have been banned from talking about governance. No more talk about amalgamation of municipalities. No more talk about an elected chairperson. None of that.
Lincoln Coun. Mark Bylsma wondered aloud if that was not a violation of his civil rights. Neverthless, councillors actually voted on this. They voted on whether they could ever discuss governance again. At the meeting to advance the discussion on governance.
Confused? Perplexed? A little annoyed? You should be. This is your council at work.
Even though they defeated the silly motion to put a gag on governance chatter, they did identify their top two governance issues – which really weren’t about governance at all. The majority of councillors determined that confusion over service delivery and inadequate communication (i.e. telling everyone what a great job they’re doing) are the most pressing ‘governance’ issues facing the Region.
For this they brought in two outside facilitators – Brock University professor and municipal affairs expert David Siegel and former regional clerk Rod Hollick (at a cost of who knows how much) – to tell themselves all will be well with better public relations.
That was 3½ hours no one will ever get back.
What a huge, colossal waste of time and disappointment. Two years ago Gary Burroughs made governance one of the cornerstones of his pitch to become regional chairman. That he was elected would indicate that the majority of councillors thought it was time to get serious about the issue. When the rubber hits the road, though, they run and hide.
They tell us the public doesn’t care about governance, that electors don’t want to hear about amalgamation, that no one thinks there are too many municipalities in Niagara or too many politicians. No one, they say, is breaking down their doors to talk about this stuff.
Really? Maybe no one wants the city of Niagara – or maybe they do. We don’t really know. But I’m betting most of us want a full exchange of views on the concept with a mind toward at least pointing us in that direction. Isn’t that what our commerce leaders have been saying with their insistence that the Region streamline its business development operations? Isn’t that what is happening with the move, albeit somewhat haltingly, toward a regional chamber of commerce? Isn’t that what has happened in Toronto? In Kitchener-Waterloo? In Ottawa? In Hamilton?
One Niagara? Perhaps not. But 12 municipalities, 12 councils, 12 mayors? Definitely not. For the Region to continually dodge the subject that admittedly would be signing the death warrant on many of their own jobs is a gross abdication of duty.
Do they truly care about efficiency in government? About saving the taxpayers money? You have to wonder.
Politicians always tell themselves at these meetings that they are doing wonderful work. Niagara politicians like to remind us that they are a bargain – that they work hard and for far less than their brethren in other regions of the province. I can only hope that wasn’t a warning shot in a bid for more money. At any rate, it’s an argument that misses the point. Maybe we should pay politicians more money. Maybe it should be full-time work. But not for 31 of them, plus all the city and town councillors. It’s not just about saving money on salaries. It’s about streamlining operations, cutting red tape, unifying operations, bringing some consistency to municipal offices.
Burroughs said near the end of the meeting that things hadn’t gone as he expected. He said that was a good thing, because it was the will of council. Fair enough. Yet how could Burroughs, the ringmaster of this circus, possibly feel good about this debacle?
The first step of the evening was for councillors to identify what they felt were problems related to governance. Burroughs spoke about the need to foster trust and respect. Minutes later Grimsby Coun. Debbie Zimmerman and St. Catharines Coun. Andy Petrowksi were exchanging insults across the room. It was not a pretty sight. So much for respect.
Oddly enough, these two were actually on the same side.
Petrowski expressed disappointment that council centred on issues which are far from fundamental problems. Zimmerman noted, “Our biggest problem is ourselves. This governance issue will never happen by revolution, it will be evolution.”
But evolution can’t happen if you’re not talking about it.
Voters do need to know what regional councillors are talking about, and they should start taking notes in preparation for 2014.
Council feels it will be better off if more people know what it’s doing. Not if Thursday night is any example.