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Democracy Unplugged at City Hall

The risk Vancouver runs by killing citizen advisory committees.

Herb Barbolet 15 Dec

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In his inaugural address, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan announced that he is calling for a review of the roles, responsibilities and relationships (three Rs) of city councillors and bureaucrats "to ensure that both groups understand both the limits and the powers of their jobs". Apparently he thinks that they do not.

His call for a 3 Rs review could reinvigorate democracy in the city, or it could close it down further. The review is certainly timely and appropriate. The manner in which it is structured and conducted will tell us everything about the outcomes.

Engaging the public

Although municipal government is closest to where people actually live and affects us most directly, voter turnout indicates most people are not very engaged in the democratic process.

Voting is not the only way in which citizens engage with the political process. In Vancouver, there are twenty-four citizen advisory bodies and taskforces. The city conducted its last comprehensive review of advisory committees only two years ago.

Hundreds of people concerned with the welfare of the city donate many thousands of unpaid hours a year participating in these councils and commissions. Sullivan, as part of the review, is asking city council to determine if these advisory bodies are the best way to get input from citizens. In the meantime, 13 of these bodies have been discharged - i.e. not reappointed - pending the outcome of the review.

Last November, the city held a wine and cheese party at the Orpheum Theatre for the city's volunteers. Mayor Campbell acknowledged that advisory committee members (many of whom are highly paid professionals) donated time and experience worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for the city.

Bureaucrat or civil servant?

Now, Mr. Sullivan wants to suspend the activities of all of the city's citizen advisory committees not mandated by law. Is that a good idea?

It really depends upon one's vision for the city. Maybe, as some say, there are two types of people - those who divide people into two types and those who don't. By this typology, there are some people who believe that city hall should ensure the garbage is picked up and the roads are repaired - and little or nothing more. "Let the free market prevail", they say. Others want the city to be involved with issues that concern them, whether it is the arts and culture, heritage buildings, food policy, or a long list of other issues.

Some people believe that once we elect the politicians it is the beginning and end of their democratic responsibilities. Others want to be able to participate in decisions about issues that may affect their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Perhaps, by the same typology, there are two types of municipal employees - bureaucrats and civil servants. Bureaucrats, by my definition, are those who want to enact clear and efficient rules and regulations and enforce them. Civil servants, again, my definition, seek longer-term creative directions, a more open and Chaordic model - Chaordic being the word assigned by author Dee Hock to a mix of creative chaos and order.

But, of course, the world is not made up of only two types of people. The world is shades of grey and the rest of the spectrum. So, some civil servants and bureaucrats think that the fewest people make the best decisions possible - as long as they are included. Others believe wisdom comes from the people who have to live with the consequences of decisions that civil servants and politicians make, and therefore they want to involve as many people as possible in making those decisions.

The need for transparency

This then is the debate about how direct or representational democracy ought to be. After sufficient beer and a philosophical discussion that goes on long enough, one usually winds up at the same place:

People are basically good, and therefore democracy should be as direct as possible with the broadest possible public participation. Or,

People are basically evil, and therefore there should be strict controls set out and decisions made by a select few - benign or otherwise.

On the issue of Wal-Mart, some, including the mayor, wanted to take a narrow legalistic approach - this is about zoning and no other consideration should be entertained. A legitimate position.

Another approach, argued by others on the city council at the time, was to struggle through the gut level issues (What is a good corporate citizen? Are big box stores good employers? Do they destroy the local economy?), and work toward solutions. With sufficient process, even though some people will still not agree, the expectation is that they will at least understand and respect why the decisions were made as they were.

Mayor Sullivan has already expressed his views. "We (city council) have the role of setting policy and staff has the role of managing and implementing our policy." (Vancouver Sun, Dec 6, 2005, pg B5). If this statement is made quickly, and the conversation moves on, then it would appear on the surface to be reasonable.

It is not. How many great ideas and policies have there been that, when managed and implemented, turned to the organic waste Sullivan, rightly, wants to compost?

Politicians cannot, nor should they be expected to, manage the implementation of their policies. But left entirely to the bureaucracy, more red tape or different objectives often manifest.

I believe that the answer is more openness and transparency in government and many more opportunities, earlier in the game and throughout the process, for citizens to share their expertise and experience.

With the suspension of so many advisory committees, city hall's decision-making process is going to be less open and transparent. Presumably, any staff attached to the various advisory committees will be kept in place during a review. They will be no longer guided by members of the public on the committee, and thus, they will be only answerable to the bureaucracy - less democracy, not more.

Toronto does it better

I was hired as a consultant by the city to help them create the Vancouver Food Policy Council. City council passed a motion supporting "the development of a just and sustainable food system for the City of Vancouver".

Toronto created a Food Policy Council 10 years ago with basically the same mandate. However, in Toronto, the food council was equally responsible to citizens and to the bureaucracy. In Vancouver, the food council is answerable to the bureaucracy. Toronto's model is more powerful and dynamic.

Advisory committee members must be accountable. Most are expected to submit annual work plans, with concrete, achievable goals on matters within the city's jurisdiction, and to report annually to council on what they have achieved. They are also expected to integrate their work plans with the work plans of civic departments, to make effective use of everyone's time.

City council also expects advisory committees to work effectively with civic staff. The work plan should be integrated with staff work plans and programs. Staff can help to keep members informed about city initiatives and priorities, and members provide staff with advice from a community perspective. That is what happens with a truly open and transparent advisory committee process.

If city council and the staff are the only ones reviewing roles, responsibilities and relationships and creating a vision for 2010 and beyond, we will have missed an opportunity to reform and revitalize democracy in the City of Vancouver.

The NPA motion regarding the suspension of all Citizen Advisory Committees to City Council will be heard at the Committee meeting this afternoon (Thursday) from 2:00 on. To be put on the speakers list call Diane Clairmont at the City Clerk's office, at 604-871-6371.

Herb Barbolet is a member of the suspended Vancouver Food Policy Council. He has been an organic grower and is founder and executive director of Farm Folk/City Folk.  [Tyee]

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