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Editorial: Victoria council governance report has lessons for candidates

In a 78-page report, consultancy MNP delivered 30 recommendations to the City of Victoria. TIMES COLONIST

Every person considering becoming a candidate in October’s municipal election should read the report on governance that was delivered to Victoria council last week.

The recommendations in the report, by accounting and business-consultancy firm MNP, should encourage potential candidates to become better informed, no matter which council they might want to join.

It would be best to look at the report in its proper context, within the agenda for last week’s committee of the whole meeting.

That agenda is 589 pages long — for a meeting that occurs almost every week. It is not reasonable to expect part-time elected officials to read and process that much information, so MNP’s recommendation that council agendas be streamlined makes sense.

But that would just be a start. MNP’s survey of Victoria residents indicates that much work is needed to rebuild trust.

Sixty-eight per cent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that council members make decisions based on what they believe is in the best interest of the city. MNP said that “the most frequent mention in open-ended survey comments is that councillors appear to make decisions based on their own personal agendas rather than aligning with the priorities and needs to the public majority.”

MNP also said that it heard that “council meetings are overly long partially due to council digging into administrative details, grandstanding, endless debate and veering off-course.”

Seventy-nine per cent of survey respondents do not believe that council provides effective oversight of city performance. Eighty-two per cent “disagreed or strongly disagreed” that council ensures that the city is focused on the right things.

Eighty-one per cent said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the governance of the city. Seventeen per cent said they were satisfied or very satisfied. Two per cent said they did not know.

The MNP report suggests establishing a code of conduct, creating a policy to guide council’s actions on matters beyond core municipal responsibilities and evaluating the purpose of council appointments to external boards and committees, given council’s existing role and workload.

Yes, the workload. Victoria council members have themselves to blame for that, and the problem goes well beyond their tendency to wander into areas of provincial and federal jurisdiction.

They waste time — their time, the staff’s time and the public’s time. Councillors spend too much time on committee work and in unnecessary meetings. They should pull back from neighbourhood committees, given the potential for mixed messages regarding their role.

They should demand that senior staff provide concise reports that include a summary of public input, but not every scrap of detail.

Consider last week’s 589-page agenda. It included 86 pages on a rezoning application that would allow Fernwood Coffee to roast and package coffee and to distribute coffee for off-site sales. Another 105 pages were devoted to the provincial government’s Energy Step Code and carbon pollution standards. (On that one, how about a three-page summary and a motion to follow the provincial guidelines?)

This week’s committee agenda is a mere 370 pages, with 27 pages devoted to a six-month extension of the tiny homes housing next to Royal Athletic Park, and 175 pages on an application to rezone light industrial land on Esquimalt Road to allow a six-storey building with commercial, industrial, live-work and rental residential units.

The annual review of the official community plan? That’s 45 pages. The review of the Victoria housing strategy? Another 91 pages.

This is a staggeringly wasteful approach to agenda management. Federal and provincial cabinet meetings are presented with write-ups that might occupy only a few pages per item, and certainly never in the region of 175 pages.

With such ready-made and accessible templates to choose from, council should direct staff to adopt a slimmed-down model, and stop wasting councillors’ time.

To be fair, this is not just an issue in Victoria. Saanich council had a 127-page report this month on a proposal for the corner of Shelbourne Street and McKenzie Avenue.

Victoria council has a special love of proclamations. This week, there are three, for Arthritis Awareness Month, Wrongful Conviction Day and National Polycystic Kidney Disease Awareness Day. Council could stop its proclamations, which would save staff time and council time without any real loss to anyone.

This matters to every potential candidate everywhere on Vancouver Island. After every municipal election, some of the newly elected are surprised when they learn about the workload, and how much time and effort is wasted on make-work projects.

With council agendas, minutes and meetings online, everyone has a chance to see what the roles include.

It would be good to see every candidate commit to increasing efficiency — and to proving that they care about the community as a whole, not just their own agenda.

It’s not easy convincing qualified people to run for office, and while reports such as the one from MNP do not help, much of the blame rests with people already on councils.

Ultimately, however, voters need to be better informed before they head to the voting booth, so they won’t report later that their chosen candidates are chasing personal agendas instead of working for the common good.

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