Cuff Report and City governance update

April 10, 2010 at 11:14 pm 1 comment

A while ago I promised an update on Victoria City Hall’s efforts to update its Governance Model in the wake of the release of the Cuff Report (previous post here).

I held off updating until I could do a bit more research but really wasn’t able to attend as many meetings as I should in order to give an informed report. But I will try anyway to describe what I’ve observed over the last year, along with some insight from people closer to the action than me.

It’s hard to say whether things at City Hall are more streamlined. Surely, their effort at fast-tracking the replacement for the Johnson Street Bridge backfired terribly as Council, Mayor and Engineering Department greatly underestimated public sentiment for the old bridge while critics expressed doubt over the justification for replacement.

The replacement of the old committee structure with a new model was supposed to ease the workload of Councillors. The old Committee of the Whole–the twice-a-month meeting of Council was replaced by five separate committees. One of the new committees, Planning and Land Use is typical: the committee only uses three of the eight Councillors. Their reports on development permits, rezonings and heritage matters are then referred to a full meeting of Council. This is intended to cut down the workload for Council.

Sounds like a more efficient use of resources, right? Problem is, Planning and Land Use is probably the most vital committee, along with Governance and Priorities but while Governance has all eight Councillors, the other four committees have only the three attendees. Yes, their findings will eventually reach everyone at the next Council meeting but this means the majority of Council doesn’t get to see an item until it’s well into the process. They’re used to seeing something appear at the old Committee of the Whole before it gets its shot at the Big Leagues Thursday night. This puts some Councillors at a disadvantage: three will have seen the initial rezoning or environmental report etc. and had time to digest it. The rest are seeing it for the first time.

To compensate, some Councillors sit in on meetings anyway, even though they technically can’t contribute and must sit on their hands while their colleagues get to ask the questions. So in many cases, the amount of time spent in meetings is comparable to the old model but there is less expertise at the table.

The other most notable change is in communications. As noted by writer Yule Heibel in a recent issue of FOCUS magazine, City Hall went on a post-election hiring binge. Many of the new hires were in the communication department as the City tries to reign in Councillors or City staffers who might “go rogue” by saying something (innocently or otherwise) to the media not already cleared for public consumption. I find it interesting that the City’s Heritage Department, which normally keeps a watchful eye on every crumbling brick and windowsill has been totally silent about the imminent loss of this one-of-a-kind and truly historic bridge.

The City is also increasingly turning to the Internet as a means of reaching the public. While a long-awaited overhaul of the City of Victoria website drags on, communications staff have spun off several stand-alone websites, like the one covering the bridge replacement or the new Official Community Plan. While attractively laid out and full of information, their home outside the structure of the main site sets a dangerous precedent. Will every initiative get its own site? There’s a strong push within the City to make it so but will visitors to the main site overlook the numerous spinoffs?

So which of these breakthoughs will stand the test of time? Which will be quietly dropped or tweaked? We’ll probably find out not long before the next municipal election.

So it’s a work in progress. No-one, including Mayor and Council, expected this model to work right out of the box.

Entry filed under: architecture, City Hall, Environmental. Tags: .

St. Andrew’s Elementary to close Peace in our time?

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Yule Heibel  |  April 11, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Thanks, Rob, for connecting the various dots (of changes) at City Hall. The spinning off of websites is a terrible idea, in my opinion. The City’s official website is still a dog’s breakfast, while the creation of all these additional websites just represents a dilution of “the brand” – and once the brand (the City’s official website) catches up, it’ll be too late to rein the spin-offs in. They’ll have to start over again – and I guess we could ask how much that’s going to cost (both in terms of staff work hours, paid consultants time, and lost eyeballs from the public).

    As for Corporate Communications: a friend who used to work for the Province pointed out that this sort of top-down communication strategy is one implemented by the Province about 25 years ago, and he suspects that the city is copying it. Puh-leeze, do we really need corporate communications at the city hall level, for a city of 78,000? I thought one of the key arguments against amalgamation was that we’d lose access to “our” representatives and “our” governance if the city were 350,000 pop. vs. the current 13 municipalities? So how come at the City of Victoria level we’re installing a communications model that throttles and gate-keeps communication, so that the public no longer has direct access to “our” reps and staff?

    Oh, I could go on and on about what a mess this council (which is absolutely the worst I’ve ever seen) is making and how they’re not leading staff, which in turn is getting away with murder (or at least gephyrocide – a word I made up via gephyrophobia), but action is best taken at the voting booth. 2011 will be here before you know it. I’ve set my stopwatch already.

    Reply

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