May 7 Saanich Council Recap

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:

  1. Saanich has policies about how meetings are organized.
  2. Understand the process
  3. If providing any supporting material, make sure you have enough copies for each committee member.
  4. Be organized.
  5. Communicate effectively.
  6. Be prepared to make your point succinctly.
  7. Remain civil, no matter how deeply or passionately you feel about an issue.
  8. See the big picture.
  9. 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.



Saanich Confusion Despite Clear Policy

There are two items that fall under section I of the May 7th Council Agenda – Reports from Members of Council – that worry me. They are both Notices of Motion, which mean they are a request from individual councillors for future action. These notices include:

OPTIONS TO REGULATE SHORT TERM RENTALS IN SAANICH from Councillor Plant. This is essentially a request for a report on regulating AirBnB in Saanich.

POLICY FRAMEWORK FOR ENVIRONMENTAL POLICIES AND PROGRAMS from Councillor Brice. Compared to the notice from Plant, this is a slightly more detailed request for the allocation of a specific amount of money ($250,000 from the Council Strategic Initiatives reserve) to fund a unanimously supported decision that was made via Council motion on November 6, 2017.

Where the rationale for Plant’s motion seems clear (unlicensed rental schemes are bad as per the common administrative narrative), I had to do more research on the motion from Brice. My need for more research, is in line with my post from the other day, wherein I argued, that understanding Council actions requires significant insider knowledge. Knowledge, which is not always immediately clear to the public.

Here is the Agenda for the November 6, 2017 Council meeting in question. It included minutes from a Special Committee of the Whole meeting that had been held on October 28, which had been held to discuss the Independent Review of the former Environment Development Permit Area (EDPA). Here was the agenda where the purpose of the meeting is defined as:

Council to receive public input further to the Independent Review of the Environmental Development Permit Area (EDPA) Report from Diamond Head Consulting Ltd. dated June 21, 2017.

You can then look at the minutes from November 6 (pages 9-12) to see the discussion that occurred around the Council table. First, the formal motion from Council to begin rescinding the EPDA was passed (after it was originally crafted at the same October 28 meeting) and this additional motion, as referred to by Susan Brice in her notice of motion, was also passed.

MOVED by Councillor Plant and Seconded by Councillor Haynes: “That staff bring Council a report, with options, as soon as possible on the potential of developing a Saanich program which includes the topics of Climate Adaptation, a Biodiversity Conservation Strategy, and Stewardship Program to serve as a policy framework for other Saanich environmental policies and programs, and a new Environmental Development Permit Area be considered part of this program; and that the Diamond Head report recommendations be considered as a component of this report.”

So what do we have up for discussion on Monday? We have requests from Councillors Plant and Brice that Saanich Council commit to two significant initiatives. One request implies the need for a new business licensing scheme (see Saanich Business Licensing requirements here) and one request speaks to the possible creation of a  whole new environmental program of undefined proportions.

This worries me.

It worries me because these two large requests for new action, are literally on the same agenda that Council is adopting their 2018-2022 Financial Plan (see item F3). This is to say, that the time for identifying two new major initiatives is prior to the adoption of a Financial Plan, as noted in this schedule:

June – August = Departmental Work Plans
August = Council adopts Budget Guidelines
August – October = Departmental Financial Plans
October – December = Draft Financial Plan is prepared
January = Senior Management Review
February – April = Public Budget Meetings
May = Final Financial Plan and bylaws adopted

If you look at the minutes for the Special April 10 Committee of the Whole meeting where the 2018-2022 Financial Plan was reviewed by Saanich Council, not only was there no discussion about business licensing (as possibly related to the Notice of Motion from Plant this Monday) there was also an explicit discussion point that:

  • No formal motion or notice of motion has been made regarding the Environmental Development Permit Area project.

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So why the disconnect and what is my point?

My point, is that the whole purpose of the annual Financial Plan (see Saanich Budget info here), is to identify and set out how you are going to fund your initiatives for the year and neither a formal response to the rescinding of the EPDA nor a decision to pursue regulating AirBnBs was included.

But so how, in this context in the Financial Plan created?

The Saanich Financial Plan is considered in relation to the Council  Strategic Plan and Official Community Plan. If we look at the current version of this strategic plan, we see that it was last updated in June 2017 (link here) and if you take a look through this document, you will see the same initiatives that we saw in the Financial plan. This is because Saanich is a professional government organization and it operates based on documented goals and objectives. The purpose of things like the Strategic Plan and OCP are to get everyone around the Council table on the same page and ensure some focus to Saanich operations.
Because without this focus, there is no strategy for spending the annual budget of 181 million dollars as identified in the 2018-2022 Financial Plan. And without a strategy, there is no way for us in the public to keep track of and hold Saanich Council accountable. Official strategy documents like the OCP, Strategic Plan and Financial plan, allow us in the public to say, “hey you said you would do this, and you did not”. Likewise, these same documents also provide some protection to Council and staff by allowing them to say “hey we said we were going to do this, and if you did not want us to, you should have let us know”.
But this does not always happen and we end up in situations like Monday where we either rely on councillors to remember what motions were passed previously (Brice) or we have opportunistically energetic councillors (Plant) who try to get entirely new initiatives going instead. Meanwhile, any of us in the public struggles to understand what is going on and why.
Does this seem like a sustainable process to you?
Here is a snapshot of the 2018-2022 Financial plan for reference.
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Local Government is Unnecessarily Confusing

I’ve always said, since I started this blog back in 2015, that it can be hard to understand exactly what is going on in your local government. There are plans that relate to policies that relate to bylaws that relate to a problem back in 2003 that related to certain personalities that relate to a pot of money and so on, and that all of which together, have an extensive history. This extensive history and background is often not available. Because why should it be, the people who need to know it, know it, and they’re by and large, still sitting around the council table or working behind the scenes as staff and management.

This to me, is worrisome because it means that things are still getting done the way that they have always been done. Local government in 2018 still operate the same way it has for years prior with the only change being, some fancy new technology and citizen engagement practices that unfortunately don’t do much to actually impact internal operations of a given organization. Supporting software programs are commonly used for the bare minimum and people continue doing their jobs the way in which they always have. Even people newly hired into certain municipal positions, will continue doing their job the way in which they were taught. Because that training was complex, and they learned it, so they are going to keep doing things the way they were told.

Now time for some Saanich examples, and when I share these examples, please keep in mind that these are just observations. There are no value judgments. Just observations. Please feel free to share with me some of your own so we can build a larger conversation.

I have been trying since Tuesday to get the GIS department to provide me with a dump of the Shape files behind their separate maps identifying Development Permit Areas. Where the City of Victoria has this information already freely available on their Open Data Catalogue, Saanich does not. What is more, is that the Saanich GIS employee who responded to my email, said that the Business Unit who owns the dataset, wanted to know how I wanted to use it. I told them and they still have not released it.

[update – I am now in possession of the desired data!]

The District of Saanich website is a master class in data segmentation and when I say this, I am not trying to be sarcastic. I’ve spent time in previous jobs maintaining municipal websites and I have spent a significant amount of time researching municipal websites across North America for other jobs. I have never in my life, had to click more times to access related data than I have from the Saanich website. And why this is, is likely because separate distinct employees are likely responsible for separate distinct parts of Saanich Operations and the many separate distinct pages and listings within the Saanich website likely reflect this.

Then we have how the Clerks department uses their purchase of Granicus software to display their meeting related information. It is used only for the display of Council and Committee of the Whole meetings. It is not used for displaying meetings of the dozen other committees and boards through which important Saanich work gets done. Where the reasoning behind this, may be that the work of the dozen committees and boards is less formal than the work of Saanich Council in their full form, I don’t buy the related and unspoken argument that it is less important. Taxpayer money is spent supporting this committees and because of this, we ought to advertise what happens within them.

The other thing I want to say about how Saanich uses Granicus, is that I am going to make it my personal mission over the next few months, to get them to start adding more hyperlinks to their agenda packages. For example, Item F3 for Monday’s council meeting is a a 16 page document that includes 8 separate bylaws. These bylaws are all individually listed in the agenda item bullet, but then the bylaws themselves are all smooshed into one file. Screen Shot 2018-05-04 at 10.23.31 AM

This does not need to happen. Separate attachments can be made and uploaded instead. If anything, uploading attachments this way should be considered easier than creating one large PDF. But then maybe, who knows. Perhaps council prefers one large PDF. For me personally, however, having one large PDF instead of separate ones, makes it seem less likely that the individual supporting documents have been reviewed and understood.

Speaking of one large PDF, it came to my attention that the agenda package for the upcoming meeting of the CRD Board of Directors is nearly 1900 pages long. That to me, is insane for more reasons than one. Not least of which is this brief report (item 5.16) on the agenda identifying the need to move Closed sections of the CRD Board Meetings from the end of the agenda to the beginning, because Director meetings are “long”. I hope the current Directors consider these recommendations carefully because for me personally, it does not make sense that the outgoing Directors will be making changes that will be effective after the upcoming election. For instance, why did the closed meetings get moved to the end of the agenda in the first place?

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With all that said, the CRD also uses Granicus for meeting management and their staff, compared to Saanich staff, at least knows how to effectively hyperlink documents into their constituent parts while also producing a full package document that is internally linked. Perhaps some cross jurisdictional lessons could be arranged?

In sum, local government is complex business with multiple players and multiple moving parts. Within our larger federal and global climate, this business gets more and more complicated each and every day as municipalities continue to find more issues at their front door. This is not a sustainable situation.