So far this month, I’ve been to four city council meetings. Of course, so has everyone else who’s normally at city council meetings, like the mayor, and councillors, key senior staffers, and members of the media. Like me.
My point is, there are normally only two monthly meetings of city council, plus committee-of-the-whole, but by the time September ends we will have had twice that many.
Now I’m sure no one among you would complain about council having to work hard. After all, there are times in all our working lives when we’re asked to work harder for longer because a deadline is coming, or sudden last minute changes to a project are needed. Point taken, but would you ever want to work overtime for months in order to finish several big projects at once?
That’s the conundrum before city council right now. This past Monday, an interim report on the first of three service reviews came back to council. The next report is expected back in November, and it will contain recommendations to council that could have wide-ranging implications for the City and city employees.
By that point, council will be well into this year’s budget process, no small project on an annual basis, and it was already mentioned this past Monday that changes proposed by the service review will likely have some budget implications not yet anticipated.
And speaking of anticipated, council, as the shareholder of Guelph Hydro Electrical Systems Inc., AKA: Guelph Hydro, has a big decision to make as to whether or not the system will merge with another local distribution company or fly solo into the future. The next report on that endeavour also comes forward later this fall.
And last, but certainly not least, there’s all the regular work that city council does on a monthly basis: new policies, new bylaws, ongoing improvement of city services, and planning meetings for new developments and rezoning applications…
This has all been rattling in my head the last couple of days, but rather than marinate on the subject myself, I thought I’d put the question to the people it affect most: Is city council biting off more than it can chew this fall, city council?
Let’s go around the horseshoe.
“It is an exceptionally busy fall for council with many meetings, lots of reading, and some major pending decisions. Some of us are also holding town hall meetings,” said June Hofland. “Yes, I believe we are all very skilled at balancing our council work, full time jobs, additional board work and family life. I always anticipate fall to be crazy season.”
“Sometimes the council workload can be busier than others,” added Christine Billings. “Right now there is a lot on our plate this fall and we will get through it.”
For the most part, the attitude among council is keep calm and carry on. “Yes, there are a few significant items this fall, but I don't think it is too much and it doesn't seem more than normal,” said Cathy Downer, whose combined 15 years on council makes her as much an expert on what’s normal as anyone. “If not these, then there are always other big issues like Baker Street and major policies decisions.”
Karl Wettstein agreed. “Absolutely not,” he said when asked if there was too much on council’s plate. “We are doing our job; budget, GHESI and service reviews all part of our 2017 operational and strategic plans.”
One of Wettstein’s colleagues added that this isn’t just about doing their job, it’s about playing catch-up. “Service reviews haven't been under taken for some time, and residents should know how well or poor business services are performing,” said Andy Van Hellemond. “Budgets are a yearly item. GHESI, a City asset, is also something that many citizens watch and are interested in its performance as well.”
While some are saying it’s just another day at the office, other councillors think their setting a new pace for getting stuff done. “While the business of the City has always come first for this term, the first two years were defined by transition,” said Dan Gibson. “Transition in leadership, personnel, vision and, quite frankly, a lot of transparency regarding past decisions.
In other words, “the momentum for us (council in collaboration with staff) has been building for some time and I believe we are now seeing the outcome of this work,” Gibson added. “I'm proud of what is being accomplished.”
Mark MacKinnon looked at the slate of council decisions this fall in a specific way. “Yes, it's a lot of work, a ‘perfect storm’ of important decisions to be made, but we are down to the final year of this council term and there's much to do,” he said. “If staff think it's important to review something this fall, then I'm up for the challenge.”
At least one councillor I heard from was considerably more pessimistic though about whether or not the “perfect storm” was going to create good decision making.
“It’s not a balanced agenda,” said Phil Allt, who added that every year it seems like an overwhelming amount of work is crammed into the last quarter of the year. “We have four months of intensive meetings, we’re going to deal with a number of things, and I don’t think people have weighed the significance of them.
“We’re going to end up into the same position and be asked to make decisions when we’re on the run,” said Allt, mentioning meetings that run into the wee small hours in past years. “The big question has to be, are we providing people with the opportunity to posture politically and not take into account the best interests of the city?”
Sounding like a politician though, the man in Guelph’s highest office said that enacting an ambitious agenda is why he was elected in the first place.
“I was elected to do big things,” said Mayor Cam Guthrie. “That's what the citizens of Guelph should expect from their elected representatives. When you challenge the status quo (service reviews), when you review city owned assets (Guelph Hydro) and prioritize city services using taxpayers dollars (city budget) - it's called doing your job.”
Having said that, the mayor did agree with Allt in that the onus should not be on how much council does, but how much it does well.
“It's not about ‘too much’ work this fall to ‘bite off’,” Guthrie explained. “It's about getting the right information to make a decision. If that means it takes us into the spring - so be it. I'm here to make decisions that are right, not rushed.”
That’s some quality alteration, and perhaps the concerns of Councillor Allt and others that the next few months of council will be a blur of activity with political decisions gone in a flash are somewhat abated by the mayor’s words.
I think we all understand the need for council to prove themselves, especially 13 months before an election, and I think we all know the feeling of the wind at our backs as we hurriedly try and get things done. But this is government, and despite what you may think of the people in it, these decisions end of affecting our lives for years. The danger is that in the rush to get things, you might trip yourself up being so focus on the finish line that you don’t see hazards right in front of you.
Or to use the mayor’s own metaphor: ”I'd rather have us take our time to enjoy our meal. If we rush it, we might choke to death and miss dessert."
Sound political advise a few weeks before Thanksgiving.