A Critical Look at a “Special” Council Meeting

Ron Bolin: August 24, 2011

The Special Council meeting of August 22 displayed many of the difficulties facing Council and thus the public regarding Nanaimo’s municipal political atmosphere:

  • This important “Special” meeting took place outside the normal Council venue, at an impossible time for most citizens, in a small room with limited seating, and was not recorded for subsequent public viewing. It was not really open to the public in any meaningful way;
  • The agenda for this meeting, in accordance with the usual practice, only became available to either Council or the public only two working days which straddled a weekend before the meeting. This ensures very little time for thoughtful deliberation by either Council or the public;
  • An attitude by staff which I can only call, at best, unimaginative, and at worst , much worse, in providing critical information to Council.

Among the items at this Special meeting were such matters as:

  • a Development Variance Permit for the new City Hall Annex, to my mind an essentially untendered expenditure of some $16 million dollars;
  • a re-rezoning of the Howard Johnson site (which might be the next big downtown development site;
  • the conversion/reversion of the Maffeo Sutton condo site which was readied at great expense as a bribe to Millennium to build a downtown hotel (before seeing whether the hotel would happen) to a park designation;
  • the reversion of the height allowable in a number of residential zoning categories (more about this later);
  • a number of text and map amendments to the just passed zoning bylaw;
  • the award of a contract for City Employee Benefits at a cost of $835,866 per year for the first two years with re-evaluation subsequently;
  • agreement to a partnering agreement with the recently incorporated Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation (NEDC) and the transfer of $1,375,450 in cash as well as other unspecified capital goods and services to the corporation;
  • $495,320 for a new traffic light (do we have any idea how much our car culture really costs?); and
  • receipt of a petition from residents who, like those in the Green Lake area, were incorporated into the city with a promise of sewer service, to waive the $1800 sewer hookup fee as was done for the Green Lake residents.

This provides some fairly heady decision making done at the far periphery of the public eye, eh?

While I believe that the matters involving the meeting place, time and lack of video backup, as well as the minimal time for reflection provided by the availability of the agenda are self-evident, the matter of Staff’s attitude regarding the residential building height matter requires some explanation.

From discussion at the meeting it was unclear when the change to the old zoning bylaw recommending an increase to 9m from 8.25m took place with some holding that it was a latecomer to the new bylaw.  While I will forego any detailed examination of the issue here (I have written about it in a recent comment on a comment by Roger Kemble on this blog),  I will note that Council was seemingly caught like a deer in a headlight when a citizen delegation pointed out that the amendment which Staff devised for Council (and recommended against), dealt only with R1 and R1a residential development while the same changes in the height of residential dwellings in other zoning categories led to the same problems.  Rather than pointing out this discrepancy to Council, Staff chose to be strictly literal in their interpretation of Council’s request and thus, in my mind, acted in a manner incommensurate with their obligations to fully inform Council concerning the possible ramifications of their policies.

Council had also previously indicated that they wished to examine the possibility of permitting a greater height in new subdivisions under certain conditions.  Rather than pursuing that policy suggestion, Staff seemed to wish to ignore it as too difficult.  Neither of these policy suggestions from Council seemed to gain traction with Staff and this is regrettable as it represents, to my mind at least, a breach in the relation of Council and Staff: Policy and operations.  Staff, as professionals, owe it to Council, as the representatives of the public, to assist Council in their policy deliberations without petulance.

From this representative series of events I would draw three recommendations;

  1. Bylaw and Big Money expenditures should be done at regular Council meetings at an adequate venue, at a time which can reasonably be expected to be allow citizens to attend, and where the meetings can be recorded.
  2. Agendas for Council Meetings should be available at least one week prior to the meeting to give both Council and the Public adequate time to review the issues coming before Council.  The only last minute issues which should come to the agenda are those which arise as surprises.  Too many surprises raises serious questions about management.
  3. Both Council and Staff could, in my opinion, re-evaluate their relation relative to policy and operations.  It is easy for policy makers to come to poor policies, especially if they are expected to make them on the fly.  Similarly it is easy for operations staff to feel that the policies which might be presented to them are naïve.  Both positions are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.  We have Councillors who are trying to do their best and we have professional Staff who keep our city turning over tickety-boo.  Perhaps they could each help the other more.