Something is wrong with City Council.
In discussions with the public, I increasingly hear people express unease about the direction Council is taking … less consultation, less public input, more surprises. People feel disconnected from decisions Council makes.
Why would this be so when the preamble to City Council meetings includes a commitment to the principles of respect, inclusiveness, and participation?
But are people welcome at Council meetings? Are dissenting voices heard – or silenced?
The MNP Governance Review was highly critical of the previous Council. Recent changes to this Council processes, while attracting little public attention, have made matters worse.
What is happening? Let me give you three examples.
Code of Conduct: Council directed staff to recommend a Code of Conduct including a complaint handling process. Staff proposed a Code of Conduct which included an independent Integrity Office to assess complaints. The proposal allowed the public to file complaints, and a mechanism to ensure frivolous and vexatious claims were filtered out by staff. Decisions would be at arm’s length from Council.
Staff cautioned against denying the public’s ability to make direct complaints, suggesting this might “negatively impact the public’s perception of fairness”.
However, five Councillors altered staff’s proposed Code to prohibit direct public access. Under their plan, the public could access the Code only through a Council member who would decide if the complaint was a valid Code complaint to be forwarded for Integrity Officer review.
Mayor Alto and 5 Councillors voted in favour of the watered down Code of Conduct with a 6-3 vote.
Opportunities to Address Council: For many years, anyone could register to speak to Council. A 60 minute limit was in place (6 people, each allocated 5 minutes at 2 evening Council meetings most months).
Mayor Alto proposed a reduction of time allocation. Other Council members expressed the need to hear from “new people” and not the “usual suspects”.
The new rules permitting 6 speakers for 3 minutes each at 2 meetings most months, or 36 minutes per month (a 40% time reduction), and tracking to reduce “repeat speakers”, passed 7-2.
Official Community Plan: Council reduced the opportunity for public input in the revision of the Official Community Plan. Community Plan development normally takes 3-5 years. Staff recommended an accelerated framework of 2 years acknowledging reduced opportunity for public input. This staff proposal was rejected by the majority of Councillors.
A more abbreviated timeline with even less consultation was requested. The 2022 election result was cited as sufficient public input to justify further reduction along with an expressed intent to engage the “right people” rather than the “usual suspects”
With a vote of 7-2, Council further reduced staff’s proposed timeline by 20%.
Other Public Input: While certain bylaw additions require Public Hearings, many City policies and projects do not require open public process. Recent examples include the redesign of Centennial Square, park development priorities, and sheltering in parks.
Early in this Council’s term, staff created a public survey to guide in budget considerations. It is clear from that survey that the priorities of this Council do not match the public’s priorities.
And now, we are going forward on 2024 budget discussions. Will the public’s voice, as expressed through the recently released IPSOS survey be respected? Or is the survey merely a prop, to provide evidence that the public had an opportunity to speak?
Our challenge is to repair the broken link between the citizens of Victoria and City Council. Are there solutions? Can Victoria enhance the democratic process by welcoming public voices and thereby enhancing accountability and transparency? I believe we can. Here are some simple steps:
• Re-establish the 5 minute rule at evening Council Meetings.
• Create Public Forums on specific policy matters or projects – not a forum to hear what the City intends – but a forum where the public can inform Council of unintended consequences, other points of view, and hidden impacts.
• Open up the Code of Conduct process by reverting to the well-considered August 3rd staff recommendation.
And finally, to make the process truly democratic and accountable,
• Create a ward system with one Councillor elected in each of 8 wards, and a Mayor elected by all Victoria voters.
With increasingly contentious issues facing this City Council, it is important that the public have confidence in Council. This means more open decision making.
It is time for this Council to act.
Marg Gardiner is a Victoria city councillor