Coun. Pat Lorje would likely agree with me when I say she and I sit on opposite ends of the spectrum with respect to political party ideology. But in the case of city council, which is intended to be free of party politics, periodically she cites wisdom that I would have to agree with. Such is the case with her opposition to council’s new model of governance.
This new model gives councillors time to enjoy the long lazy days of summer. It will be interesting to see how well the city operates without the input of councillors for two months. Since Mayor Don Atchison will still be at the helm sailing the good ship Saskatoon, let’s hope councillors will not spend the fall challenging him on decisions he might necessarily make in their absence.
Coming back well-rested from vacation, council will keep its stress levels down with its new schedule. Council’s new governance model provides for one full council meeting a month, and given the two-month summer vacation, that would mean 10 council and executive committee meetings a year.
“We are supposed to be the level of government that is closest to the people and I really despair that these changes are really going to be alienating us from the public,” Lorje said.
There are many in the public who already feel alienated from council. Couple Lorje’s concern with the fact that on a recent audit on government transparency, Saskatoon slipped from an “A” to a “B” rating for both speed and completeness of information in responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (legislation that was introduced to keep all levels of government accountable to the public.) Then again, maybe the intent is to distance themselves from the complaining public.
Lorje stood alone in opposition, although Coun. Eric Olauson did express concern about not being able to represent his constituents on committees on which he didn’t sit. This experience should prepare him for a role at the provincial level.
Coun. Randy Donauer felt it gave citizens greater transparency because it opened the doors to committee meetings. Doesn’t he know that all committee meetings have always been open to the public, with the exception of the in-camera section of executive committee meetings?
Coun. Mairin Loewen, already known as a policy wonk, thinks it will allow individual councillors to develop expertise in specific areas. That might be helpful if, in fact, a councillor is re-elected, but it does nothing for the day-to-day concerns of constituents.
Coun. Darren Hill offered his worthless opinion that Lorje’s concerns were ridiculous and offensive. Well, in my experience, when a debater starts to personally attack an opponent, it’s usually because they can’t argue the merits of the issue.
Under the former governance structure, committees reviewed, debated and recommended an outcome for whatever issue was placed before them. At the following semi-monthly council meeting, the committee recommendations were reviewed by the whole of council and generally approved. However, at a full council meeting, any councillor could challenge any committee recommendation and bring it forward for full debate by council as a whole.
Under the new model, each councillor will be assigned to serve on two out of four committees and those committees will have the authority to make decisions without the approval of the full council. What should be of concern is that three is a quorum in a committee of five, and should only three councillors attend their committee meeting, technically two councillors can make a decision that was previously made by the mayor and 10 councillors.
Nor will the public be able to pack the council chamber on a contentious issue to speak to council on any matters before a decision is made, as was recently done in the matters of bike lanes and priority use of leisure facilities. You can, of course, pack the committee meeting, but then you had best take the morning or day off work if you feel the need to speak. Somehow having the meetings streamed online is supposed to compensate the public for loss of televised evening meetings, so some folks may have to invest in a computer and hook up to the Internet if they wish to keep abreast of city issues.
What is truly wrong with this process is that our body of elected officials will not have the benefit of a full council debate before casting their votes. I can attest to the fact while serving on both the school board and council, having read the material beforehand and determining what direction I was going, there were many instances when, after hearing debate from colleagues, I changed my vote. No one person can consider every aspect of every issue and the purpose of debate is to catch the pros and cons that you may have overlooked.
During the last half dozen years, our councillors have given themselves more perks and benefits and more than doubled their one-third tax-free salary, most of them claiming this position is a full-time job. Yet they have given themselves a long summer break and leave the city to run itself in their absence. Maybe we will find out we are better off without them than with them.
If a committee of five can do the job of a council of 10, maybe we only need a council of five. Double the size of the wards and make it truly a full-time job. It would mean each elected councillor would have to give up their outside employment, actually put their bums in chairs at City Hall and be at the beck and call of the public. They might then truly be public servants earning their keep.