The Subservience of Council


Late last month, council was presented with a revised, six-page council-staff relations policy, which, according to the story in CollingwoodToday, “seeks to formalize how council and staff should interact with each other.” The story notes the first draft of the policy, a 14-page document, was presented to council in mid-September, but approval was deferred while councillors considered if it meant their impending emasculation.*

Councillors Jeffrey and Doherty, and DM Fryer expressed concerns about the policy when it was first presented, mostly about the size it had ballooned to. Jeffery commented, pointedly, the new policy was “building walls instead of (adding) cohesiveness.”

As I read it, the policy looked more like staff fortifying their silos — particularly the CAO’s — to keep councillors at an even greater distance from involving themselves in the business of governance.

Councillors are already restrained in their behaviour and activity by numerous policies and bylaws, including the town’s Code of Conduct, Procedural bylaw, and Municipal Act. Plus there are the recommendations (most of which are irrelevant to the town) of the $10-million Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry which, despite only 17 of more than 300 recommendations being adopted, is still worshipped as scripture by many in town hall. That’s the lingering stench of Saundersonism in the halls you can smell.

Unsurprisingly, typing “council code of conduct” into the town’s abysmally bad website search engine produces no direct results, but if you click on “accountability and transparency” then scroll halfway down the page and click on the “Code of Conduct for Members of Council, Committees and Local Boards” you get to further click on a link to a PDF held on another site (which requires you to click in a box to prove you are human), and then the 39-page Code of Conduct will be loaded. What an ergonomic and design mess. But I digress.

PaperworkThere is already a “Council Staff Relations Policy” approved by the Saundersonites in early 2019 “to guide the nature of business interactions between Members of Council and Staff and provide a framework for that relationship.” Why is another one necessary so soon?

Rule number 12 of the Code of Conduct says ” Members are governed by the Town’s Human Resources Policy & Procedure Manual.” I cannot find the town’s “Human Resources Policy & Procedure Manual” anywhere on the Byzantine website so cannot even confirm it exists, let alone comment on it. Clearly, if it does exist, it’s too secret for the public to examine. So much for “accountability and transparency.”

Rule number 7 says, “Pursuant to corporate policies, Town Council and not individual Members appropriately give directions to the Town CAO, and in turn, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) directs Town staff.” Okay, but in a council meeting where a department head is present and the direction is aimed at them and their department, and the CAO is also present to make sure it’s appropriate, why the circuitous route of having to tell the CAO instead of the person who’s sitting in the meeting?

Rule 13 is ” Conduct Respecting Staff” and says, among other restrictions, “Members shall be respectful of the role of staff to advise based on political neutrality and objectivity and without undue influence from any individual Member or faction of the Council.” I’d like to believe that staff are neutral,  and some are, but I’ve seen quite the opposite in previous administrations.

The old policy says “Council’s role is to support the municipality and its operations while ensuring the public and municipality’s well-being and interests are maintained. Municipal decisions are made by Council as a whole.” I’d be up in arms about that: council’s role is not simply a “supportive” role, which seems to suggest council is subservient to staff, but also to challenge and question where the individual believes it appropriate.

Uncomfortable as that is for some staff, it’s the core of a representative democracy. Councils are not merely rubber stamps for staff, but rather should be the initiators of policies and programs, the instigators of change, and vocal advocates for those things they campaigned on.

The policy also says, “Council could help Staff in meeting Council’s expectations by: adopting policies that complement and reinforce Staff efforts to improve administrative operations.” Again, I’d balk at that: I don’t believe it is council’s responsibility to “reinforce” what staff decides is best practices or operations.

The revised version modifies that to “adopting policies in an open and consistent manner that complement and reinforce efforts to improve administrative operations advancement of the Community Based Strategic Plan and other relevant Master Plans.”

Argh. Plans, even vaunted “master” plans change. Or should… no policy or plan is so fixed as to be carved in granite. These should be under constant review to make sure they apply to current, not historical, circumstances, to cultural trends, to community needs.

I’ve noted before that the “Community-Based Strategic Plan” was neither strategic nor community-based, but rather a meandering wishlist cobbled together by friends of Saunderson’s Block, lacking clear direction and measurables. It misses more community issues and considerations than it includes and is painfully out of date. It’s long past its “best-before” date and should be binned.

The point of democracy is not to elect governments that continue to reinforce old, stale policies and plans misbegotten by previous governments, but to craft new ones that adapt to and prepare for changing conditions and situations to best serve the community. I know that flies in the face of the reactive Saundersonites in town hall, but it’s the way democracy works.

The new policy also includes an admonition to councillors to limit their “requests for staff responses or reports where they are not likely to advocate a change, or where the change could wait for the annual budget or work planning processes.” I translate that as “Don’t bother us with your own ideas: we’re too important to deal with trivial requests.” How would a council member know beforehand if their request was unlikely to result in a change?

I realize that it may annoy staff to be questioned and even challenged over an issue or policy, but that’s not only the role of the councillor, it’s how they learn about issues and programs, how they evaluate their importance and measure their success, and how they uncover the important background to them.

Asking questions, requesting reports, getting informed, digging deeper — that’s a key part of being an elected representative and clearly one resented by staff. In fact, it’s not just a role, but a councillor’s responsibility to question everything, to challenge, to explore alternates, to advance ideas and opinions. They were not elected to be passive, asleep at the council table except to raise their hands to vote in favour of whatever is recommended by staff.

In a letter to his brother, Quintus, who was running for election, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote advice that our own council should also heed,

Your job is to steer the ship of state smoothly and steadily. Remember that a helmsman who falls asleep can wreck a craft. Still, if you stay awake, you might enjoy the voyage.**


* Unsurprisingly, there was nothing on this in the increasingly irrelevant Collingwood Connection, which hasn’t posted a single story about council — arguably the most important information for residents — since Sept. 18. Does anyone still visit their site these days? If so, I’d like to know why.

** Quoted in How to Run a Country, containing quotes from Marcus Tullius Cicero, selected and translated by Philip Freeman, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2013. Freeman also quotes Cicero from the latter’s book, On the State, 3:23:

In politics it is irresponsible to take an unwavering stand when circumstances are always evolving and good men change their minds. Clinging to the same opinion no matter what the cost has never been considered a virtue among statesmen.

And if our councillors are even slightly interested in reading Cicero, I highly recommend they read what I consider his most important work for politicians: On Obligations (De officiis, also translated as On Duties). The paperback edition translated by P.G. Walsh (Oxford World Classics, 2000) is very good.

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