Federal Coalitions and Municipal Absurdities

I spent the early part of last evening watching television… bouncing back and forth from the news channels that are reporting on the state of affairs in Ottawa to the local station that broadcasts the budget deliberations of the St. Albert City Council. What a mess, on both counts.

Federal Politics
Astounding! I am absolutely astounded by the way the media is portraying how the Canadian people are reacting to the thought of a Coalition Government! If you were to listen to the media, it’s the one issue that is ‘top of mind’ for all Canadians. Wow. If we could only get that kind of interest in an election…

I really doubt that there are that many people who are that concerned. In the client workplace that I am currently working from it is rarely mentioned… and I am working from Provincial Government offices. In fact, I think that the only person who raises the topic is me!

This silliness over the undemocratic nature of a Coalition is just that; silliness. I’ve been told that a number of European countries function with coalition governments. In fact, Switzerland has had a coalition government since 1959, or some such date. As I’ve mentioned before, Israel has a coalition government.

I’m hearing, again through media filtering, that business owners/leaders of all stripes are angry that the Conservatives presented the economic update that they did. I’m hearing that business is angry with Harper for being so bloody petty. I’m hearing that business is starting to question whether Harper should be PM… lack of leadership issues. And I’m getting mixed signals on the nature of the Coalition. Some damn the Liberals and NDP for getting into bed with the Bloc, while others are pleased that Mr. Duceppe is involved because he’s the only one with any real integrity.

I am pleased to see that the media commentators, even the talk show moderators, are finally laying the blame for the current Federal political situation at Stephen Harper’s doorstep. There are acknowledgements that Mr. Harper has been acting mean-spiritedly. There have even been comments made, out loud, in the print media and on the air, that Mr. Harper should be replaced by someone like Mr. Prentice.

Municipal Politics
Now, before you read the next bit, just be aware that I do have a close personal relationship with one of the players…my comments, observations are not entirely dispassionate.

One of the most interesting experiences for a novice to the municipal political world is to just sit back and watch how it works, or doesn’t, as the case may be. The St. Albert City Council Budget Deliberations, currently being broadcast on the local cable provider’s community channel (channel 10 in St. Albert/Edmonton) are a brilliant way to observe. These Budget Deliberations are conducted in a format referred to as ‘Committee of the Whole’; it is not a City Council meeting, per se, but it is the entire City Council confronting representatives from the City Administration, and they follow a good chunk of the rules of order used in a regular Council Meeting, with the occasional deviation, and a slightly ‘informal’ air.

One of the challenges about this formalized approach to budget deliberation is that it fosters the perception that the various Administration Teams are not allowed to defend their budget submissions unless specifically asked to. It has the appearance of a lopsided ‘don’t speak unless spoken to’ environment, similar to regular Council Meetings. What the optics seem to reveal is that the Administration has submitted a budget for the next year, City Council has gone through the budget line by line and has made a series of motions challenging specific line items, usually by changing the scope or reducing the monies. Each motion is voted on. In some cases there is a defense of the line item offered by a representative of Administration, if they are given an opportunity to defend the line item. In very rare cases, a member of the Council will champion the line item. In even rarer occasions, a member of the Administration Team is called to speak for the defense of the line item who has some passion for what that item means to the provision of services to the public.

These cost cutting motions range from quashing of the acquisition of new goods and services, stifling the improvement/development of existing goods and services, reduction/removal of budget items that support the basic tools needed to provide service to the public, to defeating new staffing initiatives. An example that resonated with me was the emasculation of a Capital Projects Project Management Team.

Unfortunately the public viewing these deliberations are not getting a true sense of the impact of this sort of decision making process. The real implications of the cuts are not necessarily being adequately discussed on camera, again, presenting a very lopsided view.

What also seems to be happening in the background is quite interesting and a little disconcerting. The Mayor himself is admitting on a fairly regular basis that if a member of an Administration Team manages to get the Mayor aside and have a private chat with him about a specific motion (the bulk of the motions are recorded in advance, and the bulk of the cost reduction motions seem to be coming from the Mayor), pitching their case personally, he tends to withdraw the punitive motion during the Budget meetings. If the Administration Team that is affected by one of his cost cutting initiatives plays by the rules and works hard to prepare Information Requests that substantiate their case, they do not get the same level of hearing in the Budget Meeting as they would through a meeting in an office or a ‘chance’ exchange in a corridor, and for the most part, lose their case, and the corresponding line item.

I do wonder how a City like St. Albert is going to maintain current levels of service to the public with such cuts. If memory serves, there was another Mayor some years ago who got the shock of his life when he discovered that the majority of the public was more interested in the quality of services provided rather than in the tax increase. There was a vocal minority who did not truly represent the interests of the majority with their complaints about taxes.

And again this time there does not seem to be any attempt at managing the public’s expectations.

My biggest concern, aside from the impact to my ‘internal contacts’, is the effect it will have on staff moral, and then on the delivery of services.

One of the good things of broadcasting these ‘Committee of the Whole’ sessions, is that the public can see the behaviour and effectiveness of each member of Council; which Councilors are prepared for the meetings, having read the submissions from Administration, and which haven’t bothered to do their homework. And they can see the behaviour of the Mayor.

Elected officials at this level, in this size of municipality are there to provide governance. In most cases they are amateurs when it comes to administering a city of the size of St. Albert. Governance is turning to City Administration and saying “Cut $2 Million from the Operating Budget.” Leave the actual cuts up to the professionals who actually run the City. Unfortunately what is happening in St. Albert is that the City Council, led by the Mayor, is attempting to manage in areas which it is not qualified to manage. There is a reason why you hire professional municipal managers, just like there is a reason why you hire lawyers and accountants, and plumbers. Some jobs are just too big and complex for the average resident. And this Council is not just ‘managing’, it is micro-managing.

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