Government by Gotcha!

Ron Bolin: Oct. 19, 2014


Here in Nanaimo and, I expect, in many other municipalities we are increasingly governed by Councils and Staff who are all too aware of the power of surprise. It can be easy to convince themselves, and unfortunately an all too trusting public, of the need for an action or expenditure which, one hopes at least, that they would not make given sober second thought. Eliminating the time for sober second thought has become a hallmark of Nanaimo’s administration.

Let’s start with public notice of actions coming before Council. At the best of times Council agendas are available on a Thursday afternoon for a Council meeting coming on the following Monday, thus giving two working days’ notice of what perhaps may be very serious and possibly contentious issues: hardly time for sober second thought. And what about those stalwart protectors of our democracy, the news media? Our not widely distributed newspaper of record has one business day, Friday, in which to research a story for its Monday edition, while the other widely distributed paper will not publish an edition until the day after the meeting is held. Both the media and citizens must be on their toes and prepared to analyze on the spot an agenda that may exceed 350 pages of documentation and reports, an arduous task even for those who are paid to do it and a labour of love for those who are not.

In any event citizens, while not physically barred from participation in major financial, policy and procedural issues in the City are mightily discouraged from doing so. Some years ago at one of the meetings set up for informing candidates of how election procedures worked, one of the sitting Councillors of the time and who is sitting yet today, said to me that she was elected by the public to represent them and that, trusting the judgement of the Councillor they elected, they did not wish to be further disturbed until the next election. This is certainly one definition of representative democracy: But is it the one held by the public generally? Certainly the view that representatives are elected to carry forward the will of the electors who must therefore be continually consulted as to their wishes is as valid an interpretation, even though it involves considerably more effort on the part of those elected.

In this environment, Gotcha! Can be taken as a given. If neither the Council nor the public have adequate time to consider the ramifications of major policy decisions, what other game can be played. In this instance, the Gotchas! can be laid at the foot of City Staff and the City Manager who controls the agenda. Council has the power to change this game by demanding that agendas be available ten (more or less) days ahead of a Council meeting so that there is adequate time for consideration. For some reason Council has neglected to do this, despite the fact that I do not believe that anyone can show the public a matter that was so important that it had to be rushed to the agenda, while I believe that many instances where decisions have been rushed primarily because of the tardy submission of information or reports can be found. But wait, there’s more… Council strikes back.

In order to even the score, Council has increasingly begun to eschew the agenda and raise issues inside a Council meeting which we not on the agenda at all, thus showing Staff that they too can play at the Gotcha! game. An early example was the addition to the budget a couple of years ago of a Communications Officer position. Previously abandoned, this position was resurrected by Councillor Brennan in a Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting and adopted without further ado, positing a single position and a cost less than $100,000. I believe that that sum is now exceeded and that there are multiple positions involved. With all respect to the person(s) filling the position, do you believe that communications have improved since the inception of this position?

More recently we have seen the Leadercast fiasco where Councillor Pattje brought forward a motion made without notice and off the agenda to give Council the agency to act as thought police in deciding who could use public facilities for public events. This ill-conceived motion was immediately passed by eight of our nine Council members and brought lasting shame to Nanaimo and to our Council from all over Canada due to the interest of a Toronto Commentator. While I may recognize that the intent of the motion was not vile, the fact of the matter is that this Gotcha! moment would never have taken place if there had been time for sober second thought.

This was followed by another Gotcha! moment where, again without notice, Councillor Pattje changed the status of an agenda item involving over $6 million dollars of public money from receiving a report on the matter to adopting the expense without appropriate sober second thought and again surprising the public who might have liked to be consulted on a matter involving what amounts to some 6-7% of their property taxes.

But what about those items on which both Staff and Council conspire to keep the public befuddled. The Community Charter allows Council to go “in-camera”, i.e. into secret session, under two sets of conditions: Section 90(1), outlines conditions under which Council “may” go in-camera, while Section 90(2) sets those where they are obliged to go in-camera. By far the bulk of our almost weekly in-camera sessions are held under section 90(1) where it is up to Council to determine what the public should know about public policy. There has been some effort made to gloss over this problem by touting the theory of the three L’s (land, labour and litigation) to define the need for in-camera sessions. But ask yourself, on what matters does Council make decisions which do not pertain to those three elements. We need serious discussion of the use of Section 90(1), a true Catch 22.

We are coming up to an election which will determine our participation in the governing of our City for the next four (4) years. Ask yourself whether these last three years have been good and whether you are better off than you were before. Ask our candidates for their thoughts on these issues and demand clarity. Do we want to continue with Gotcha! Government?