Collingwood council’s committee system is broken

Last term, council approved a recommendation from the CAO to dump its traditional structure of council and public committees, to an internal system of standing committees filled only with politicians. The structure is used in several other – mostly larger – communities. It sounded intriguing, bold and exciting, so council said yes, let’s try it. Let’s be innovative.

But, despite recommendations to the contrary, it wasn’t implemented until this new council took office. And that implementation isn’t working.

In fact, it’s created a worse-than-ever disconnect between politicians the the public.

Instead of engaging the public more, instead of creating more openness and transparency, it is doing the opposite: alienating us. Members of the public who used to contribute to the process through boards and committees are now shut out.

It needs to be fixed or scrapped and a more open system restored.

Three standing committees – Development & Operations, Community Services, and Corporate Services – meet once a month, on different days (Monday, Wednesday and Monday, respectively). Each has only three council members on it.

To their credit, sometimes non-member councillors also attend these meetings in the audience, but not all. Nor do all senior staff attend every committee meeting. But isn’t that redundant?

There is also a Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee, comprised of all of council, which has met only once so far (on a Thursday), to discuss budget matters. Plus there are separate budget meetings.

Council itself – all nine members – only meets twice a month. Recommendations and reports from those standing committees are then brought forward and often re-discussed. This is neither efficient nor good governance.

Most of the committees meet in council chambers, except Community Services, which inexplicably meets in the Library building on the third floor. None of the standing committee meetings are televised, so the general public can’t see them at home. Although all are open to the public, very few people actually attend, aside from the sycophant bloggers and their friends.

Minutes from the committee meetings are buried in council agendas, not published separately and not (so far) available separately online.

This mix of days of the week and places of meeting is ineffective and confuses the public. The paucity of public attendance, coupled with the lack of TV coverage, gives the impression of secrecy, of back room debates, not the promised openness and accountability.

Standing committees cannot make any decisions, other than to recommend something to the full council where it will likely be debated again. Anyone from the public or staff who made a presentation to a committee will have to repeat their presentation to the full council if he or she wants to be sure it is seen by both the full council and the public on the two days that council is broadcast on TV.

Also, a committee only needs two members to recommend something. That worries me because it suggests a mere two people could drive their own private agendas through this process.

A prime example of how flawed the committee system is came on Feb. 9 when the Corporate Services Standing Committee, which consists of Mayor Cooper, Deputy Mayor Saunderson and Councillor Edwards, recommended passing an upcoming proposed bylaw to allow retail stores to open Good Friday, Easter Sunday and other statutory holidays. It did so without hearing a single word from the public, the local ministerial association, nor from the Chamber of Commerce or from the BIA – neither of which knew it would even be discussed until the previous Friday.

Perhaps the standing committee structure works better in municipalities with large councils. With a council of only nine, it makes little sense to create such a divergent and unconnected structure and to separate these functions into disparate groups. It will only lead to silos and turf wars, as well as further alienate the public from its elected representatives.

It would be far more efficient and a lot more open to hold televised committee of the whole meetings on Monday nights as in the past.

Toronto Mayor John Tory recently said Toronto’s governance structure – which relies heavily on such standing committees – was inefficient and “badly broken.” He added, “Spending hours debating items that have been discussed by committee or an hour setting the agenda damages productivity and our reputation.”

Ditto for Collingwood.

Collingwood council’s reputation is threatened with a similar degradation if council doesn’t fix this broken standing committee system and become more open.

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