I got an invite from Debbie Wilson of CBC Radio last week when I was busy pounding out tweets from the CRD Eastside and Westside Wastewater Select Committees. She invited me back to CBC’s “On the Island” to talk Council process and meeting accessibility (ICYMI my first slot was back in February when I was just getting started). I readily agreed to the invite and worked hard all weekend thinking about what I wanted to say while on the radio.
Here is the complete audio of my CBC On the Island Radio interview with Khalil Akhtar that happened this Tuesday morning. It was fun!
Khalil was really nice and we talked a bit beforehand about my future plans. He suggested that I start doing a podcast because he thinks there would be a real appetite for such thing and it should be easy to get sponsors. I agreed that a weekly round up podcast would be a really good compliment to my tweets of Victoria City Hall, CRD and Saanich meetings. I also agreed that sponsors are important because when he asked me how I found the time to attend all the meetings, I told him I haven’t been working and that the blogging and tweeting has been my full time job since January.
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So What Did We Talk About?
The interview had five main questions and even though I spent a lot of time preparing I ended up talking more freely when actually in the sound booth with Khalil. I think I did a good job and got most of my points across. I didn’t quite manage to get all of them out though, so please indulge me and allow me to elaborate a bit further on my responses from this morning.
1. A lot of people, particularly neighbours, seemed to be caught off guard by the vote to look at putting a tent city in Topaz Park. Why do you think this happened?
In response to this question, I spoke of how locals were caught off guard because Council approved a plan that could see a tent city in Topaz park without asking neighbours what they thought. I also spoke briefly to the history of this issue and how it emerged – (you can find a summary post here). In doing so, I tried to make the ultimate point of how folks didn’t expect a tent city because they weren’t given any reason throughout the strategic planning or budget process to think such things would be a possibility.
And where Council may argue, hey we’ve had a lot of meetings on this larger issue of housing supports since February and they’ve all been open and public, I’d counter by saying these meetings aren’t structured for public input. The public can’t get involved and be informed if they don’t know how to get involved and be informed.
Related to this, I spoke a fair bit this morning on how even my presence in city hall as a dedicated observer is usually just ignored.
2. Is this an exception or are there other issues where key information isn’t getting across?
In response to this question, I spoke of how the “do stuff” approach of Mayor Helps embodied in the Topaz Park example is not an exception because it seems common under her leadership for ideas to be put out there and pulled back after folks get upset.
As for whether or not such an approach is deliberate on her part, I honestly don’t know. Most of the time, I’m inclined to think she intends her ideas to be positively received. And when they aren’t I’m also afraid the negative reactions just fill in and support what seems to be her long-standing grudge with Victorians who are opposed to change. Tweets encapsulating quotes from her to such an effect make frequent appearances in our blog posts.
I don’t think Victorians are opposed to change – I just think they want to understand the reasons and incentives for it. And the reasons and incentives aren’t always clear when Mayor Helps is at the helm because she tends to move quickly and think later.
So what does this mean?
I’m not sure. What I can tell you though is that, as times gone by, I’ve developed some respect for Mayor Helps and her efforts to make change at city hall. And looking forward, I’m going to promise to be more direct, engaged and vocal about whatI observe at City Hall and the CRD because however well-intended Help’s efforts may be, they’re also clunky, as she likes to say, and that’s really no excuse for what actually amounts to her blatant disregard for process. Process needs to be respected and if process isn’t working, it needs to be changed.
I can help with this if she likes but she’s going to have to have acknowledge me first. Mind you, I’m also going to have to engage directly with her more as well. Trouble with that mind you, is that unlike with news reporters who approach a story with a particular angle and then go fishing for a certain quote afterwards, I never feel such as desire to approach Council after their meetings. I’m thinking that I’m going to have to though, because I doubt they’ll open dialogue with me first since I’m the one who there reporting on them. Which makes sense.
On a related note, I actually ended up putting these three questions forward to CBC initially as my intended discussion points:
How to interact successfully with the mayorship of Mayor Helps and her focus on 21st century democracy (as opposed to traditional command & control bureaucracies) because, like it or not, she’s on to something. Which is to say, naming and shaming doesn’t get us anywhere. We need to help her look critically at our systems of city governance instead. In order to do this, we need to know:
- How to look for issues coming forward from council (e.g., homeless & economic supports).
- How to interact with issues at the council table (e.g., land use & development).
- How to respond to issues once they’ve been acted upon by Council (e.g., Johnson Street Bridge)
Thankfully it was decided that such an approach was interesting but needed to wait for a subsequent interview once folks were more familiar with me and once I got better at speaking clearly to my concerns. So stayed tuned!
3. You’ve now been following and tweeting about council proceedings for half a year – what stands out in what you have observed? – how open is the debate? how clear is the agenda?
During the interview, I ended up speaking more about what stands out for me in how my motivations for live-tweeting have been understood by others than I did on the question of how open is the debate and how clear is the agenda. So let me address this now:
Clear Agendas and Accessible Debate
A Council discussion/debate is clear and accessible when I can understand why an issue is on the table, what decision is made, and why that decision is made. I don’t need to agree, I just need to understand. Related to these criteria, my way of scoring such openness and transparency is to ask how easy is the meeting to live tweet based on the following variables:
Are complete agenda’s published ahead of time?
- City of Victoria publishes their agendas on the Friday before the Thursday when regular meetings are held.
- CRD publishes agendas before meetings are held, but the tendency seems to be that these agendas change at last minute.
- Saanich seems to publish their agendas the Friday before a Monday or Tuesday meeting which means that not as much time is available for pre-reading. That said, Saanich Councillor’s seem more prepared for their meetings that Victoria Councillors.
Are all agenda reports included in agenda package?
- City of Victoria tends to publish big reports like quarterly updates and reports on new initiatives late to the agenda (e.g., only the morning of and not the Friday before). This means there is less time available to review these items.
- It seems common for the CRD to publish agendas with a common tagline under items – to be distributed at meeting. Which is to say, they don’t seem to be very good about providing all agenda reports for general consumption.
- Saanich seems to always provide all reports.
Are separate links to agenda reports available?
- Separate Victoria reports are easy to tweet because separate reports and other resources are clearly linked from the agenda.
- Separate CRD reports aren’t always easy to tweet because they are not always provided by the start of the meeting, if they even are provided.
- Separate Saanich reports cannot be tweeted because they are only provided in one big PDF so I take screen shots of reports and tweet them instead. It is not the best solution, but it works.
How good are the agenda reports?
- City reports can be hit-and-miss. Because the majority of issues at the council table have a history, the first thing you look for is the background section of the report. Some reports are easier to read and understand than others. Sometimes I have to do a lot of supplemental research and this takes time.
- CRD reports seem to be either super-short and lacking context or super-long. There doesn’t seem to be an in between.
- Saanich reports seem to be well-structured and well-reasoned, allowing for relevant information to be easily consumed.
What about incamera agenda items?
- The City of Victoria actually seems to be the most transparent in their advertising of in camera meetings with how they state the legislative reasons as well as the main subject for going in camera. Where they are less transparent seems to be revealing after the fact why they went in camera.
- I don’t know much about the CRD system. I think they just give a general legislative reason for going in camera. I know that I got annoyed the other day when tweeting about the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee that started and ended with in camera business because this made for a really awkward public session where Directors seemed to just be talking for show.
- Saanich also seems to only quote the general legislative reasons for going in camera and I don’t know them well enough to know how they later reveal such information. What I can tell you, however, is that they certainly seem to hold a lot less in camera meetings than the city does.
How well are issues brought to the table?
- Victoria presentations can be hit-and-miss and sometimes they’re provided and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, even when they’re provided, as an observer you’re thinking “Ok, this makes sense”, council can still go sideways when meeting in their committee format.
- CRD presentations don’t always seem to happen and when they do, the person speaking isn’t always introduced, which makes things confusing.
- Saanich presentations don’t always happen. At the bare minimum, the clerk does read out the motion on the table prior to the start of Council discussion.
How well are citizen voices represented at the table?
- Citizen representation at Victoria City Hall seems to mostly occur outside of formal committee and council deliberations. Consequently, it can be hard to fully understand and/or appreciate the depth or lack of community involvement or even community awareness of particular issues when it comes before council. As as result, I’d say that the City really needs to look at how and where it solicits public opinion, as well as look at how it uses that information once it’s gathered.
- Citizen representation at the CRD seems self-selected and to also consist primarily of retired folks because they have the time and capacity to attend meetings during the day. Citizen engagement is certainly not consistent across the full spectrum of CRD activities. I’m looking forward to learning more about how they work.
- Citizen representation at the Saanich Council chambers seems well established. There is an activist public and there are activist councillors who can be counted on to bring issues forward. The public is also free to speak to council before issues are addressed as part of the regular agenda process.
How well are business and social service voices represented?
I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they are in any formal way.
How clear is the Council/board table debate?
- Debate at Victoria City Hall either doesn’t happen because issues are passed through on the consent agenda or you wish it didn’t happen because of how it occurs in a confusing lump where amendments to amendments to amendments are made independently by Councillors. What then gets even more frustrating is when Council engages in a series of disconnected monologues, not an actual conversation or debate while staff sit silently on the side of the room. As for my tweets of such things, they’re generally restricted to statements by Council, but every now and then I have to comment on process, especially when I get frustrated with the amount of time being wasted.
- Debate at the CRD seems like a weird game that no one is really paying attention to. Given how poorly their agendas are managed (e.g., late and incomplete) and how poorly issues are set up at the board table, the fact that good discussion and decision making doesn’t seem to happen at the political board table shouldn’t be a surprise. Nor should it be surprising how decisions seems to be made and forgotten as Directors compete to move on. Such meetings are really hard to tweet.
- Debate at Saanich Council is interesting. It is easy to tweet because councillors speak deliberately and have clearly considered the issues before them. They also frequently refer back to comments made by the public during their deliberations. Mayor Atwell really needs to work on his chairing skills though.
4. In your monitoring of council proceedings, how much company do you have from media or others reporting on what’s going on, on council and the CRD?
During my interview, I mentioned how it is very uncommon for media of any form to show up at Victoria City Hall or CRD meetings. What I didn’t mention is that this is because they provide webcasting so meetings can be watched at home. It is more common for media to show up at Saanich as a result. Related to this, I spoke somewhat to a larger trend that I’ve noticed, for how Council reacts to media and how media reacts to Council and board decisions.
It’s antagonistic and not collaborative.
Where general media is strapped for time and space and are writing for a mainstream audience so they have to simplify content, our councillors and directors shouldn’t be operating under similar constraints. They should be able to understand the complexities and intricacies of any particular issue up for decision and if they don’t they should be asking staff for guidance. Because when they don’t and when they attempt to minimize or inflate issues to the media and the media just grabs at what they can, both myself as a council observer and the general public just get confused.
This isn’t good.
What I also didn’t mention during my interview is who else shows up at these meetings? Where there is always a consistent crowd of observers at Saanich Council regardless of the issue, the number of general attendees at Victoria City Council totally depends on the agenda. Some nights it is packed and others there are just a handful of folks in attendance.
Another interesting thing to note is that more folks seem to show up for Saanich committee meetings than they do for Victoria committee meetings even though Victoria committee meetings, like Saanich are where the primary work of council occurs. Perhaps this is because Saanich residents know they can participate in the committee meetings when they show up, but the same can’t usually be said for Victoria.
5. What are your long term plans – what do you hope to do with what you’re learned doing this project?
During my interview, I must confess that I don’t even remember what I talked about. I think I ended up rambling. Short answer to a big question is that the main thing I’ve learned from my project is that local government is my life’s calling. Seriously. It is fascinating stuff and it is so poorly done on so many levels.
Long term plans are to make this my full time job.
And on a practical note, I also wanted to mention how my observations over the past half a year have led me to believe that most of the antagonisms and emotions in local government, where everything is always in someones back yard, could be avoided if a few tweaks were made to council process.
For that to happen, we need to look closely at why things operate the way they do. And as my way of supporting this, I’m going to be building new functionality into my website to make council and CRD process easier to track. I also want to start facilitating events on bigger topics like amalgamation and work more on establishing deeper relationships with community associations, businesses and developers from both Saanich and Victoria.
It’ll be a fun challenge and I hope you’ll join me.
As for how I want to use my new insight going forward, it’ll be applied in how I will continue to approach issues with my eyes and ears open, because I lack preconceptions and I don’t like to pick sides. Instead, I like to look at previous records and read best-practice literature as a way of reaching a practical conclusion about what’s going on.
Related to this, I find it interesting how super-cliquey everyone is with their involvement in local politics across the region. Just the other day, when I was walking to my car from the Topaz Park event, I got stopped by a fellow who felt it necessary to mention that I was “inspiring a bunch of competitors”. Like what does that mean? My response to him in the moment was that I’d rather they be collaborators instead.
If people want to join me in a crazy-endurance competition to see who can stay longer in council meetings, I say let them. I doubt they’ll enjoy it as much as me though.