Misunderstanding Local Government

A recent editorial in the Collingwood Connection underscores the need to have writers who understand the actual process of government, and not simply comment on politics from an ideological perspective. It also underscores that some of our council still don’t understand why they are at the table.

The anonymous writer of that editorial has penned this bit of cunning misinformation:

Council was not being asked to decide if residents should be able to raise chickens in their backyard or pass judgment on the merits of the idea. They were being asked to start a process of public input.

Well, we know that’s not quite correct. Although the standing committee recommended one option, council really had a choice between the two options presented in the staff report. Here’s what the staff report actually recommended (emphasis added):

THAT Council receive Staff Report P2015-34 for information purposes. OR
THAT Council authorize the initiation of an application for Official Plan and Zoning By-law amendments and the required public consultation process and allow a moratorium of enforcement for existing properties with backyard chickens.

So council could choose between two actions (a standing committee can only recommend, not dictate to council).

First choice: receiving the report and, after considering the cautions, concerns and costs identified by staff in the report, then relegating it to the dustbin as an issue not to be brought forward.

Second choice: start an unbudgeted, expensive, time- and resource-consuming, legal process to change our Official Plan and bylaws to accommodate a small special interest group, while allowing those people who are currently breaking the law to continue doing so without penalty.

Council wasn’t being asked if residents could raise chickens because that is already illegal. Council could choose to do nothing, or to start the process of changing the laws.

But there was public input already: advocates made a presentation to the standing committee, several people spoke to the issue, and presented a petition. Anyone could attend, could stand up and speak to it. Why would you need more? Do you need more public meetings again and again on a single issue?

Public input is part of the latter choice because it is required by the Planning Act and Municipal Act when OPs and bylaws are changed. It wasn’t necessary in the first choice (you don’t say ‘No, we’re not going ahead. Now let’s hear from the public…”.

Frankly it’s a canard to make that the focus, because in the end the decision still remains with council regardless of the public input.

Council chose the former option: receive and ignore. Regardless of whether you agree with that choice, it was the proper procedure.

Decision-making is never easy and requires considerable thought and discussion to understand the complexities that surround every issue. I can’t say that all members of council adhere to that notion; perhaps far too many bobbleheads nod when they should be asking the tough questions.

The first question any council member should ask of any issue presented is, “Cui bono?”

This is the Latin for: who benefits? Who is it good for? It is in the best interests of the community at large, or just a special interest? Does it strengthen the greater good or just help a small group?*

No matter what his or her ideological or political stance, a council member is elected to serve all the people, and do the best for the entire community.

The second is: “What does it cost?” Not just the cost to initiate it, but all the ongoing costs of implementation, enforcement, monitoring, training, inspection, printing and so on. As the news story in the Connection noted,

Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson asked for the cost to initiate this process. Director of Planning Nancy Farrer said the cost billed by the town for a bylaw amendment public process attached to a private developer making application for changes is $12,000.

That’s just one part of the equation. Good on him for asking, but had Saunderson been more savvy or experienced, he should have asked the rest. He should have dug deeper, should have exposed the ongoing costs, not just the tip of this financial iceberg. This isn’t a one-time capital expense like buying a car. It has ongoing operational costs that will affect our bottom line for many, many more years.

How much staff time is involved? What are the costs to bylaw to create a new law, get legal opinion on it, and enforce it later? Do we need more staff to enforce it? Are there costs to other agencies such as the Simcoe Muskoka Health Unit (funded by taxpayers)? Is our animal shelter prepared to take in the inevitable unwanted chickens (and who pays for the additional upgrades, space and staff training)? Are there liabilities or insurance costs that will affect us? Does the NVCA have concerns about proximity of chicken coops to waterways and wetlands?

Where the public was let down was that none of this important information was brought to light.

This also reaches across departments – which means budgets – and even jurisdictions (some of which are outside our municipal authority). Was every agency and authority contacted and asked for comment?**

The third is: “Who pays?”

Is the money already budgeted? If not, where will it come from? Do taxpayers have to shoulder additional taxes or can the operational costs be contained within existing budgets? Are there user fees or licences involved? Must we deplete reserves to pay for it? Will it be at the cost to other services?

And finally, “Do the benefits outweigh the costs?”

Some initiatives have greater benefits than their costs because they promote the community’s well-being, such as non-smoking and anti-idling bylaws should the town ever bother to enforce ours…). Laws to control speeding and drunk driving are similar: expenses that contribute to a greater good.

When a special interest’s pet project – like this one – is presented, the answer to this question helps determine whether the community at large will benefit in the long run, if not necessarily immediately.

Do the benefits of a select few people eating free-range eggs from their own hens outweigh all the potential problems, diseases, costs, nuisance, noise, pollution and effort that will burden the many?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that council asked these questions of staff (and only one did at the standing committee). Perhaps they were convinced by the staff report alone, but someone should have asked, so the public could hear the answers.

The editorial goes on to say:

The thrust of Saunderson’s campaign was the previous council didn’t listen to the public. Councillors Deb Doherty and Kathy Jeffery, who both voted in favour of the motion, also campaigned on the idea of engaging with the public on issues before council.
On Monday, Doherty stated, “It is important to have public discussion and get input from both sides.”

Claptrap. You got it already – you did attend the standing committee meeting to listen to it, didn’t you?

During election campaigns there’s always a platform about “openness, accountability and transparency.” Candidates rail and froth that former councils don’t listen “to the people” and newcomers promise they will change the culture and become the ear to public input.

It’s all ideological bullshit aimed at arousing an emotional, rather than an intellectual, response. Pointing fingers and claiming the incumbents are corrupt, or acting in bad faith, or are doing backroom deals, or aren’t listening to the people have always been good for garnering votes among those easily swayed by flimsy rhetoric, regardless of the truth of such claims.

In the last campaign many candidates made egregiously untrue or unfair statements about the former council. Some of these candidates got elected. The thrust of these campaigns was not to bring more openness and public input to the council table – it was merely to discredit the former council. The media people should know this, if they paid attention.

Municipal councils are already constrained by a bevy of legislation that set the legal terms by which councils operate in and out of the public eye. These include:

  • the Municipal Act;
  • the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act;
  • the Municipal Elections Act;
  • the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act;
  • the Provincial Offences Act;
  • the Ontario Human Rights Code;
  • the Criminal Code of Canada;
  • the bylaws and policies of Council as adopted and amended from time to time.

The editorial writer was remarkable silent when this council passed its ‘code of conduct’ that actually makes council less accountable and transparent, and removes much of their activities from both public scrutiny and investigation by the Integrity Commissioner (whose role has been reduced to eyeballing council’s gift-taking activities…). Where was the moral outrage, then? The cry for public input?

Why are chickens so much more important than ethics?

Public input during an election campaign is one of those golden fleeces politicians should pursue, but take those promises cum grano salis (with a grain of salt). The simple fact is that you cannot run a government based on public input on every issue, not even on the majority of issues. It would be way too slow and inefficient.

The whole point of democracy is to elect someone to represent your interests. Doherty was wrong. There was public input (presented in the admittedly cumbersome and often secretive standing committee). The majority of councillors, for whatever reason, decided it didn’t sway them and no more was necessary. Perhaps they attended the meeting to hear the public input (just kidding…)

Elected officials are expected to show leadership and vision, and to make decisions. Going to the public for every issue isn’t leadership. Quite the opposite. It’s borderline anarchy.

That’s why council’s committee-based wish list (CBSP) was such a farce: it didn’t highlight the strength of the community: it highlighted council’s weakness in failing to provide those two essential elements voters demand: leadership and vision. It turned the community’s future over to a committee of friends and followers – none of whom the public elected.

Efficient and effective governance is also decisive governance. You simply cannot go to “the people” to be told what to do every time an issue arises. That’s just shirking your responsibility: you can’t get out from under having to make a difficult decision by pretending you need “public input” first. You’d never get anything accomplished (and there are much more important things to debate than chickens).

Furthermore, it becomes a government by clique to operate this way. It is always the core 100 or 200 people – often friends, sycophants, favour-seekers and those owed political debts – who get involved (or appointed) to local government. It is the same core group that attends meetings, completes surveys, responds to questionnaires and circulates petitions. It’s letting the remora guide the shark.

Who can forget a couple of terms back when the VOTE (Voters Opposed to Everything) special interest group tried to run council? Is that what we want to return to? Letting outsiders guide our policy and decisions?

Leave the public input for the really big issues: this wasn’t one and it got the treatment it deserved.

* Urban chicken raising is clearly a special interest. The advocates managed to get 429 signatures on a petition (it was not identified whether there were children among those names, although children were mentioned at deputations, nor if they all lived in town). Based on a rough estimate of 22,000 people in Collingwood, that means fewer than 2% of the population signed it. I might point out that when a 2,100-name petition was presented to Mayor Carrier’s council in 2007, he responded by saying it was divisive, and represented an insignificant number of residents: “…the majority of council, from himself through Coun. Sonny Foley, captured far more than that percentage of the popular vote.”
** Why did no one ask if the animal shelter was in favour of this proposal? After all, the shelter will be the facility (and staff) forced to deal with – and pay for – the fallout once the fad loses its glow and chickens are abandoned for the next shiny toy.

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