I got asked yesterday why I attend council meetings. It was then further pointed out to me that I don’t get paid for attending council, and the question was asked again. My immediate response was, “I think council is important and interesting. People should know what is going on.”
So what happened yesterday? You can find the video here if you want to check it out. The whole meeting was just under 2 hours and started off with the monthly public forum whereby 15 minutes is put aside for people to “tell council things they likely don’t know” as was told to me by Mayor Atwell after I tried to make a request on an apparently off topic issue.
Googling just now, I found this page on “Addressing Council” from the Saanich website and I also found this short handout on “Tips for addressing council” which include the following:
- Saanich has policies about how meetings are organized.
- Understand the process
- If providing any supporting material, make sure you have enough copies for each committee member.
- Be organized.
- Communicate effectively.
- Be prepared to make your point succinctly.
- Remain civil, no matter how deeply or passionately you feel about an issue.
- See the big picture.
- Stay engaged.
The first speaker in the public input session yesterday was a woman named Dorothy Chambers and she was upset. Sounded like she had some solid reasons for being upset though, as she showed pictures of a crystal meth lab she found in Cuthbert Holmes Park (Saanich website info on park) and spoke of a frustrating day trying to talk with Saanich staff, as well as Provincial and Federal reps to get the issue cleaned up. Dorothy was especially frustrated because she had expected the passing of the amendments to the Parks Management & Control bylaw on April 23rd to have resulted in her park becoming safe again.
So why isn’t it?
Here is a snippet of the minutes from April 23rd about the bylaw change.
To get to the root of Dorothy’s concerns, I headed back to the April 9th Council agenda and read this staff report (item D1). It is from the CAO and speaks briefly to how Council directed staff to draft bylaw amendments that would grant “police/staff authority” to remove items from the park. I do note however, when you actually look at the bylaw amendments themselves, the wording is oriented more to Saanich parks staff than to police.
This was also what Dorothy was emphasizing (albeit indirectly) when she reported that Saanich police were not aware of any changes to the Saanich Parks bylaw authorizing such things. Mayor Atwell nonetheless asked her what her point was, because he had been told by staff that the number of campers had gone down since the bylaw was changed. Dorothy says it has not.
All told, an awkward start to the meeting.
For me with my experience in bylaw enforcement, this was an issue that could have been mitigated in a few ways. First of all, any staff reports on pending bylaw changes should include an implementation plan that outlines what is going to happen once those bylaw changes go into force. Furthermore, the City of Victoria is at least 3 years ahead of Saanich on this issue (of managing camper belonging and waste in Parks) so they should have been contacted for guidance and advice.
But it does not seem as though they were. It also seemed to me that the majority of folks around the Saanich Council table just figured, hey we passed a bylaw change, so the problem must be gone now. But that is not how the world works.
Perils of Unstructured Action
There were two other issues last night that unfolded in a similar, but slightly different, vein. These were the two notices of motion that I wrote about in my article from Sunday (e.g., the request for a report on AirBnB and setting aside $250,000 for funding a new Environment Development Protection Area scheme amongst other things). The discussion on these items was slightly different than the parks discussion however, in that this time, it was the Councillors following up. It was quite something watching them collectively struggle to remember just what they had previously committed to at the Council table.
Councillor Plant started things off by saying, “so I was reminded last night that we already passed a motion referring the short term rental topic to strategic planning”. The CAO also made a comment about how staff had also been thinking the same thing. Council then spent a few minutes saying disconnected things until a separate discussion emerged on council procedure (e..g, the rules for how things happen at the Council table) and they were finally able to agree on what to do with the notice of motion in front of them. Mayor Atwell then concluded the topic by announcing to everyone “just so you all know, we currently have a scheme where we require AirBnB type operators to get a business license”.
All told, where Saanich News has placed a positive spin on the evening events by picking up on how this re-referral of an already referred motion “strengthened” it, I’m personally more pessimistic. I don’t understand the agenda preparation process that allows for previously passed motions to make their way on to the agenda again. And I’m confused by a Mayor who concludes a discussion with relevant information instead of sharing it at the start.
Then there was the notice of motion from Susan Brice about setting aside $250,000 to fund a possible replacement to the EDPA. This too was primarily a motion that had already been passed back in November 2017. New last night, was to “set aside” $250,000 to fund related initiatives and an explicit commitment was made to public consultation. During the usual round about free for all of council discussion that ensued, Councillor Haynes went deep into campaign mode and got called out for violating procedure, and the CAO commented that staff is already working on the requested report and it will be coming out later this year.
It was messy.
What it ultimately resulted in, was that on the same day that Saanich Council approved their 2018-2022 budget (e.g., how they are funding their work for the year), a separate motion was passed that resulted in $250,000 being put aside for specific use that is not identified as a departmental priority or cost category. Instead, the monies are generically reported on as part of the $160 million Saanich Consolidated Operating Expenses.
Nonetheless, Councillor Susan Brice the motivator had this to say:
This worries me because it means that Council is content to “put aside” money without context. They did not think it was relevant to wait until the expected staff report was returned with some analysis of scope of work and possible costs. And they certainly did not think it was practical to wait for the upcoming election to determine the worth of the suggested initiative. All of it leaves me wondering, how, in the absence of a proper work plan or strategic goal, is any part of this initiative even supposed to be tracked?
The Downside of Making Decisions Without Full Context
Then there was the recommendation that Council approve amendments to the Board of Cemetery Trustees of Greater Victoria governing agreement with the City of Victoria to increase borrowing limit to $3 million subject to statutory notification and change the annual financial reporting deadline to April 30 (as per item J 1 on the agenda). This was an issue that I attempted to speak to during the public input period.
My argument, when I spoke, was “why does the Royal Oak Burial Park really need to remain a municipal cemetery”, especially since they are essentially a private entity. In particular, their recent efforts, as seen in their annual report, have show they are perfectly capable of taking on their own debt (at better rates than those offered via debt held by Saanich I might add) and the only reference of them from the Saanich website is that they are a park managed by others.
If we consider Royal Oak Burial Park a municipal cemetery, this would typically mean that their employees are municipal employees. Right? This does not seem to be the case. Because if you look at the nearly $1.8 million dollars for salary and wages for their 22 staff, you would expect that would include some high income individuals. Right? As per standard municipal convention, these high income individuals are identified in the annual Saanich SOFI statements (scroll down to find). But if you look at the 2016 statements, you cannot see the names of any key cemetery employees.
Which to me, means they are not a municipal cemetery.
Furthermore, municipal cemeteries are typically associated with lower interment costs than are private cemeteries. However, the costs for burial at Royal Oak seem quite high compared to the municipal cemeteries I have worked with, and this, to me, diminishes any municipal advantage. So again, how and why are they actually “municipal”?
Well, from a licensing perspective, if you look to Consumer Protection BC (the licensing body for such things) you can see that a private cemetery has to renew their license every year, whereas a municipal cemetery only has to renew their license every 5 years. And if you look to the original operating agreement between Saanich and Victoria for the cemetery grounds, you will see that the cemetery is “municipal” because its debts have to be guaranteed by Saanich and Victoria. But otherwise, no other information of substance seems to be exchanged, reviewed or required between either the Greater Victoria Cemetery Board Trustees (technical operators of the Royal Oak Burial Park) and Saanich or Victoria.
So why am I saying this? I am not trying to slag the Royal Oak Burial Park. It is a nice place with a full range of services. I don’t think it is necessary or relevant to continue it as a “municipal cemetery” just because it has always been one, especially since, in this municipal format, Saanich council is required to make decisions without all necessary information.
So looking again to last night, the gist of the cemetery related motion was to set the stage for changing the ceiling for guaranteed debt to be held by the Burial Park. With this request however, there was no context on why the original request from the Cemetery Board of Trustees for a debt ceiling of $5 million got reduced to $3 million, and there was no mention of current inventory, even though 57 acres remain undeveloped at the site. Both of these factors seem relevant as population continues to grow here in the CRD and this would typically mean an associated boom within the burial park.
But none of this was discussed and the motion got passed through as requested. Mayor Atwell, to his credit, did ask for clarification from the Finance Director of the nature of the relationship between Saanich and the Royal Oak Burial Park prior to calling the motion. All the director said was that there has been a relationship since 1922 and this was deemed sufficient.
It is not sufficient for me, though. Why should the Royal Oak Burial Park be able to capitalize on its “municipal” nature with reduced licensing requirements and access to municipal pension plan without the usual expected public scrutiny for high earners, while we hold on to liability? What’s the point? What’s the benefit to Saanich? The Burial Park does not even acknowledge that we hold liability for their debt and instead claim no municipal “subsidy” in all their documentation.
Municipal time is short and it does not seem as though it needs to be spent on Cemetery operations, especially the operations of a municipal cemetery that refuses to acknowledge us.
Spending Money Without Policy = Opportunism
My final comment on last night has to do with agenda item J2, which was a request for monies from the Saanich Affordable Housing fund in the amount of $150,000. This, too, got passed, and self congratulations were shared. Nobody, at any point, suggested that Saanich should invest in the development of strategy and guidelines similar to the City of Victoria Housing Reserve Fund, which standardizes the application processes and amount of monies that can be provided. Such a policy is important for ensuring fairness for all.
Fairness requires strategy though, and the only one seemingly willing to deploy such strategy at the Council table Fred Haynes. That said, it has consistently been my experience that his efforts are usually widely off topic and inappropriate for the actual discussion at the council table. Just last night he brought forward his own “notice of motion” for a future council meeting on the topics of needing to write a letter to the federal government urging a reduction in processing time for refugees.
Don’t get me wrong, I feel for refugees but that is a federal issue not a municipal issue. I am sick of so much time being wasted by Saanich Council. Both time and resources are limited, so common sense needs to be applied to what happens at the Council table. And when I say common sense, I am referring to the need for an effective relationship between council and staff. As is, the balance seems off.
I am going to be talking more about this need for balance in the future and to conclude this article by returning to the question of “why do I attend council meetings?” I do it because I find them fascinating. I attend Council meetings because in a world of non-stop information, I like to envision how local government-related information and data could be better managed. Lastly, I attend Council meetings because local government is our most immediate and tangible level of government and this means that it highly susceptible to influence.