As you all know I’ve been spending a lot of time observing what goes on in the City of Victoria Council chambers. So much so that sometime I feel as though I’ve lost my grip on reality. Truthfully. In order to get it back, I have been making the rounds to other municipalities, as well as checking out the CRD as a way of gathering some context. Through these visit I’ve come to see how different everyone is, particularly Saanich (largest population) and Victoria (largest budget).
Here is a sample of some such differences.
Agenda & Meeting Management
Saanich is arguably old school with their agenda & minute management for Council and committee meetings. All they do is make huge pdfs available which is inconvenient from a citizen engagement perspective, especially if you’re only interested in one report that is buried deep within a 200 page agenda. From a live-tweeting perspective as well, it is also much more convenient to have access to separate URLs for each report because then each report can be linked and advertised separately.
People seem to like it when I do this.
Where Saanich excels in my opinion is how they use their website to advertise upcoming meetings. For instance
- Their Agenda & Procedures page gives you everything you need to know about the functions of different meetings and what to expect. You also get access to a listing of “meetings this week” from this page which is a perhaps maintenance heavy but useful feature for visitors to the site.
- From a long term planning perspective Saanich also utilizes a handy calendar page that maps out all of their meetings by type for the year. I like this feature because you can see when certain types of meetings occur throughout the year and you can also get a clear sense of just how many meetings there are in any given year.
Victoria on the other hand utilizes the ICompass meeting management software solution which is a program with some strengths because you’re able to navigate through all meetings and or all agendas (where all reports are added separately) by meeting type and year. What is less convenient about Victoria’s system is that they’ve yet to adopt the new in 2013 functionality also available from ICompass that allows you simultaneous access to the agenda and minutes for any given meeting (as opposed to having to go to two places) and also allows you to sign up for email alerts of all agenda changes.
This email alert system would be handy for two reasons. The first is that once you sign up you get immediate access to notice of when meetings are occurring and the second is that you get notice of when there are changes to agendas (e.g., new items get added or less frequently items are removed). This would be much easier than what you have to do now, which is keep an eye on the city’s demented calendar functions as well as always watch the individual File pro sections for Council, GPC and PLUC meeting agendas.
The demented calendar itself…
With respect to where you find city of Victoria webcasts, they utilize the Granicus webcasting system which is a whole other program from Icompass (meeting management) and Atomic Crayon (city’s website) with a whole other interface. Recent improvements to the City’s simultaneous use of multiple software solutions is that they’ve brought the webcasting links directly into their website (instead of requiring you to click through multiple links like before) which I suppose is helpful?
Financial Plan Bylaws
The District of Saanich gave three readings to their 2015-19 Financial Plan Bylaw Monday night. Other than my general thoughts a few months ago when I compared budget info available on the Saanich website vs. the City of Victoria website, I have not made any dedicated observations of the districts’ budgeting process.
In preparing for their Council/COTW meeting Monday night I did nonetheless observe how neat, tidy, concise and strategic their Financial Plan document (which gives context to the bylaw) is compared to the behemoth document published by the City of Victoria (and is still waiting final edits I think) with respect to their 2015-19 Financial Plan.
I mention these two versions of the same document because they seem to represent two different management philosophies – where Saanich seems to pursue communication & financial planning through simplicity, the city of Victoria appears to be a few miles behind and still focused on getting everything written down. Like the old saying “I would have written a short letter but I didn’t have the time”.
Speaking of the City of Victoria has anyone else noticed the changes in operating and capital budget numbers from the Financial Plan bylaw that received 1st reading on February 26 and the Financial Plan bylaw that was adopted on April 30th? I just noticed the differences myself other day and I can attest to there being no public discussion amongst Council about these differences in the final document when it was adopted last week (video here) and or when the amendments were first introduced at a Special Council meeting on April 23rd (video here).
Where of course I recognize the growth in the Operating budget from $213 million to $217.5 million is a result of Council’s allocation of the $4.5million in surplus/new assessment revenue I don’t quite understand the growth in the capital budget from the $79.5 million that was in the financial plan at 1st reading to the final $82.3 million in the financial plan adopted last week.
So what gives? I also don’t really understand why and how there are such differences when you do a side by side comparison of the following variables in the Capital budget as noted in the financial plan:
- Active Transportation grew from $3,586,500 to $5,086,500.
- Downtown Beautification grew from $293,000 to $303,000.
- Parks decreased from $2,770,255 to $2,720,920.
- Bridges decreased from $38,800,000 to $32,059,381 and yet funding from debt proceeds only decreased from $19,400,000 to $18,741,489.
- Facilities increased from $6,010,500 to $6,135,500.
- A new category of Land Purchases for $8,000,000 was added for the land purchase the occurred with no notice or public discussion.
All told this makes for an increase of $2,845,046 in 2015 capital spending. However the only difference that makes sense to me as someone who has observed all of their public meetings is the increase in Facilities spending which I assume has been changed to represent the annual $10k funding increase to community centres. With respect to the other changes, I’m lost and did not find any real guidance in the short staff report that accompanied the bylaw changes (when read on April 23rd) because it only spoke to the low level differences in funding that mostly got wrapped up into the differences in the operating budget.
Wordy I know.
Of note is that because Capital funding comes from reserves or debt there is no immediate tax impact on the increased spending. There is however the worry that money taken from reserves may not be replenished – I do see though that the total transfer to reserves amount identified in the 2015 financial plan bylaw has increased from $40,298,968 in February to $41,960,968 for the bylaw that was adopted (about 60% of the difference of the increase in proposed spending for 2015).
And so why do I mention this?
I mention this as a tie in back to my earlier comments about different philosophical approaches to budgeting. Whereas Saanich appears to have kept all budget things clear and concise, the amount of information provided by the city has been consistently overwhelming. Instead of keeping things clear and making it evident when such changes occur, mountains of info have been published as many decisions were made and many associated changes were made making it is easy for things to be obscured or switched.**
If things were well organized, these changes would be evident.
My final point to make about the undiscussed changes to the final City Budget document is that they don’t appear to reflect the results of Citizen consultation on the budget. But then hey, more money for cycling lanes happened so I suppose they listened to that. Maybe that accounts for the substantive difference to the capital plan?
**And just to be clear, I’m not implying anything nefarious I’m simply arguing that the City still seems very far away from its goals of priority based budgeting (as I’ve written about at length in a series of articles).
Property Taxes & Sewage Taxes
The District of Saanich also gave three readings to their 2015 Property Tax Rate Bylaw which was in contrast to the relative theatrics of Victoria Council when they adopted their own Property tax rates bylaw last week. Of note is that where Mayor Helps was recently in the news complaining about the CRD sewage levy the District of Saanich appears to have passed CRD Sewage Amendment Bylaw (also on Monday) that restricts aspects of the CRD sewage levy.
Victoria on the other hand passed through a CRD sewage levy increase (I assume) by amending their Sanitary Sewers & Stormwaters Utilities bylaw) with no discussion at their Council meetings on February 26th (see pages 17-18 of meeting minutes) and March 12th (see page 13 of meeting minutes).
So why can the Mayor go in the news and complain after her Council already passed the same thing she was complaining about? My guess is that this was because the main focus of the bylaw amendment at the time, was on the new reductions to city sewer fees for folks who water their lawns in the summer when the amendment was first introduced back at their February 12 GPC meeting.
If I’m talking about the wrong sewage levy please let me know! Because if I am, I blame it on how hard it is to navigate the CRD website and find stuff.
The Development Process
Here in Victoria the typical development process is that staff work first with applicants and then proposals move forward to the Planning and Land Use Committee for consideration. While at PLUC there is commonly a staff report and presentation (so long as the item does not get passed on the Consent Agenda) and then there is Council discussion in their PLUC format where they decide whether or not to send the item forward to Council (as Council) for formal approval and/or less commonly rejection.
Council discussion then occurs in response to the “reports from committees” which are always part of the Council agendas. Following decisions made at that first Council, there can then bylaws that need to be read and public hearings that need to be advertised before they can occur. Of note is that these public hearings occur during regular Council meetings and some nights there can be six public hearings while on others there can be only one.
It all seems highly unpredictable.
In contrast, the development process at the District of Saanich appears to be that proposals are first considered in their Committees of Whole formats where both the applicants and members of the public are given an opportunity to speak. From there Council deliberates and then at the end of their meeting they ratify decisions made. Formal public hearings when they are required by legislation like in Victoria and all municipalities, occur on a night dedicated to public hearings.
With respect to matters being discussed at these development meetings, the first thing I noticed about development reports from Saanich staff is that these reports can be read in one go. There might not be staff presentations in Saanich but you can also understand the reports they produce. Reports from Victoria staff on the other hand, frequently require multiple readings and also necessitate substantial questioning from Council (to staff) in order to get a sense of what is actually going on and what the history/legal reasoning for a given project may be. Of note is that this initial discussion all occurs in absence of any direct contribution from the applicant and or the public – unlike in Saanich where the public is involved from the start.
All told this combination of City ingredients often leads to an unpredictable and confusing process whereby sometimes meetings are super long and other times they’re super short – regardless of agenda length.
In contrast, I observed Saanich Council in their COTW format on Monday night listen carefully to applicants and members of the public, refer back to their own bylaws, ask thoughtful questions, seek practical clarity and guidance from staff, and make reasoned decisions. Staff in response were clear, confident and consistent in their interactions with Council.
This all led to me tweeting:
So What’s My Point?
I’ve written previously of the City’s commitment in their strategic plan towards Excellence in Land Use and Planning and I’ve since attended all sorts of Planning and Land Use meetings and observed a number of public hearings that have occurred during Council meetings. I’ve seen a lot of patterns emerge and I’ve heard a lot of issues and challenges be raised again and again.
What I haven’t seen is the clear, concise professionalism that seems to surround the Saanich development process and that is odd to me.
It is also nonsensical to me that we have 14 different types of land use planning going on simultaneously across the CRD. Of note is that the many challenges of such a set up were evident in the CRD meeting I attended the other day where Directors seemed unprepared to act on there draft regional sustainability strategy.
So what can we do about it?
I’ll tell you what I’m doing about it. With my site, my tweets and my visits to other municipalities, I am working to start a conversation about the business of local government across the CRD. And to start having this conversation, I am working to develop a common language (e.g., agreement that all municipal functioning generally ties back to certain bylaws or legislation) for how we talk about local government. I also want to share my passion for all things local government because I think that is a key part of getting folks engaged.