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To delegate authority, or not to delegate authority

This week's Market Squared respectfully points out the problematic trend of delegating certain council authority to staff because of COVID-19
20160201 Guelph City Hall Sign KA
GuelphToday file photo

If you watch city council for long enough, you get a sense for what’s going to be a major issue. Sometimes though, a simple matter on the consent agenda becomes an hour-long debate, and it’s surprising, even if it shouldn’t be.

An item added to the consent agenda a couple of days before Monday’s planning meeting asked council to approve a new exemption to the Parkland Dedication Bylaw. If an industrial or commercial property wants to develop, or redevelop, in the interest of expanding production, adding space for physical distancing, or creating room for testing, screening, or other COVID-19 safety measures, then staff can authorize the waiver of parkland fees.

The intention of the motion was to make government more responsive amid the pandemic crisis. So if a local business wants to expand to create a new line of masks or other type of personal protective equipment, they’re spared the additional cost of paying the parkland dedication fees, at staff’s discretion, until the pandemic is over.

Naturally, there were some concerns expressed from the people around the council on whose head the axe always falls.

One councillor wanted to make sure that a business couldn’t go from making masks to making hats without paying the fees. Another councillor moved a motion to add a quarterly report back to council on the waiver for added oversight.

Another councillor noted that Parkland Dedication was a huge trigger for people here in Guelph, but there are only certain types of fees that staff can waive under delegated authority, and considering that some properties in Guelph were built before the Parkland Dedication Bylaw was implemented, those fees could be cost prohibitive for businesses looking to act quickly in a pandemic.

There’s a lot of detail in that last point that can’t be explored thoroughly enough in this space, but as the debate unfolded, it was clear that there was more meat here than in a sign bylaw variance, or the approval to build a new garage in a heritage district.

Watching this unfold, I was reminded of another COVID-necessitated authority that was delegated to staff, and the mad scramble by council to override that authority when it delivered a politically unpopular decision.

Of course, I’m talking about the dining district. Staff was given the final approvals, and they decided that Sept. 21 would be the time to wind it down for the season.

The original idea behind giving staff the authority was that council can’t be responsive enough to act immediately on issues concerning the dining district, but council was pretty damn responsive when a meeting was called on a Thursday for the next Monday, to save the dining district at literally the 11th hour.

There should have been something of a warning sign there. Not about the professionalism or capability of staff, but about the necessity of political oversight for the professional civil servants. There’s a reason that we have a city council as the conduit between the wishes of the constituency and the technocratic administration by staff. Otherwise, why would we bother to have a mayor and a council?

I worry that council is, at times, a bit too deferential to staff. Again, that’s not to besmirch anyone that works for the City of Guelph. In fact, their competency likely encourages the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to delegate authority to them on matters that should be approved by council itself.

The question is what happens when you have a staff that’s not as capable?

I have been on boards and I have worked for boards where I have seen first hand the benefits and demerits of too much delegated authority.

When you have a good staff, having a hands-off approach engenders trust, but it also insulates the board from understanding the mechanics of the organization they’re in charge of managing. When you have a bad staff, and those people move on, you’re left with a disaster area that you have no idea how to clean up, let alone start the difficult process of moving the organization forward.

It’s nice that council has faith in staff, and I understand why Mayor Guthrie and others come to their defense when they’re attacked, as what happened a couple of times on Monday. This is the sign of a two-pronged problem.

First is the appearance, justified or not, that council just rubber stamps the decisions of staff, which isn’t true, but we’re continually forced to reconcile the idea that appearance tends to be more readily accepted than fact.

Second is the fact that the public has limited interaction with staff. Most people can name their ward’s city councillors, but do they know the treasurer, or the general manager of parks and rec, or which DCAO is in charge of what area, or what the letters DCAO stand for?

You don’t have to believe in the so-called “Deep State” but more than a few people are willing to believe that career civil servants are lazy, corrupt and entitled people that don’t listen, and how can they when we don’t even know who they are?

But isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Aren’t politicians meant to take the political hit so that staff can do their jobs without political interference? The short answer is yes, but the more these emergency delegations of authority come up, the more it might feel like the city has co-managers on some issues.

This may be an issue that has to be resolved by the ongoing council composition and employment status review, because this may be a matter of making sure council has the time to wield the authority they have. If this is more work than part-time status allows, maybe this is another argument to go full time.