Council committee accepts staff report on Shape recommendations – rejects the idea of sharing power with a community group.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  March 9, 2011  –  The one thing that always has to be remembered with politicians is that they were elected and given the power to make decisions and they never give that power away.  They might share it – a little, but if you look as if you’re going to actually get your hands on those levers of power – you’re knuckles are going to get hurt.

And so it was that Shaping Burlington learned Tuesday forenoon that neither the staff or the city council were about to give away very much in the way of the power they have to run the city.

Some background.  Former Mayor Cam Jackson created  a committee to look into a perceived lack of trust between the city administration and its citizens and a poor customer service mentality.   John Boich and Walter Mulkewich co-chaired the Committee that produced a report that was given to Council on May 3, 2010.  Council passed its resolution of endorsement July 5, and the document took on a life of its own and became one of the focal points in the October, 2010 municipal election.  The original Shape committee was disbanded and was replaced by a “watch dog” group that named itself Shaping Burlington with the mandate it took on to ensure that the Shape Burlington recommendations saw the light of day and didn’t collect dust on a shelf. 

City Staff were instructed to review the original report and come back to Council with recommendations.  Those recommendations went to a committee earlier this week and after surprising little discussion or real debate the report from staff was accepted in principal with some fine tuning to be done.

Before the council committee accepted the report in principle it heard a delegation from the Shaping Burlington people on what they felt were the shortcomings of the report that was written and shepherded through the municipal bureaucracy by Kim Phillips.

Ms Phillips wrote a detailed, considerate response to the original report and went along with the thrust of the original recommendations – but that wasn’t enough for the Shaping Burlington people.  They seemed to have felt  they were very close to getting their hands on those levers of power and they wanted to make the grip as tight as they could.  In making that comment the intention is not to imply that Shaping Burlington is a bunch of power hungry revolutionaries; they are nothing of the sort.  The do believe in collaboration and sharing but they don’t fully understand the realities of municipal politics.

They forgot the basic principle that guides and directs what politicians do – you never give that power away and you share it very sparingly.

Well, the people who have labeled themselves as “watch dogs” over the city aren’t going to have any of the power they wanted.  They will continue to be on the edge of deliberations.  Consulted from time to time and experiencing that Newfoundland phrase: “killing them with kindness.”  City staff and the citizens of Burlington have yet to find an accommodation within which each can grow.

 “Shaping Burlington” explained Chris Walker, chairman and public voice of the group, “comes from a developing a climate of civic engagement at City Hall”.  They saw the staff response as a good first step but they wanted quite a bit more than a simple step.  Walker was delegating to the Budget and Corporate Services committee that had formally received the Staff report.  Even though there were two members of the Shape Committee on council – there wasn’t much spirit in the discussion and it would be a stretch to suggest it was a debate.  More of council ensuring that its perks and power weren’t tampered with.

The agenda for the meeting also included the Capital Spending portion of the budget and that was where council wanted to be.  Did Shaping get a fair shake at the meeting?  Was the essence of the Staff report and the concerns that Shaping had with that document get the consideration it deserved?  Not really.

The Shape Report intention was to create a position of authority – council wasn’t buying it.

The staff report included the Thank you and platitude stuff about continuing the dialogue and Shaping Burlington, which saw the report a week before it was delivered formally to the committee, took the bait and responded with: “they  look forward to participating in continuing collaboration with city staff on the issues raised by Shape Burlington and its successor group, Shaping Burlington, as recommended in the staff report” and referred to the atmosphere of cooperation and goodwill that has been demonstrated to date.

Walker then mentioned the differences between the Staff report and what Shaping Burlington felt the Shape report called for and said his team was looking for “a more pro-active, less cautious, approach to the issues involved.”  Walker forgot that he is in Burlington where caution prevails

The prime issue for Walker, who speaks for the group, was the way the matter of an Engagement Charter was to be handled. He pointed out that Shape Burlington had recommended a plain language policy document that specifically directs how civic engagement can be fostered. “It incorporates benchmarks and accountabilities, describes the value, purpose and opportunities for citizens to influence city policies, explains how citizens can navigate City Hall and its services, and stipulates best practices”, explained Walker

The Charter, he added,  was to incorporate an early notification system to provide reasonable amounts of time to understand, discuss and develop positions.  Staff, according to Walker “anticipates merely a brief document that describes purposes and accountabilities, but specifically rejects incorporating benchmarks, how to navigate City Hall and its services, and best practices. The report, argued Walker does not include an early notification system in its working paper.  He pointed to a line in the Staff report that said: “ it is not a value and not applicable to all the city’s decision making.”   Walker didn’t see it that way, but he is a pleasant man and he takes the set backs in stride.

Along with an Engagement Charter the Shaping people wanted an Engagement Officer and that was just not on with this council. Walker pointed out that: “The Shape recommendation was the establishing an Office of Engagement whose Director would report to the City Manager. The intention was to create a position of authority, not merely a staff resource.”

Walker and his group were serious about civic engagement and wanted the power to bring that about to be shared.  Wasn’t going to happen.  Walker wanted to be sure staff and council understood his point and explained that the staff report recommends a two-year contract position to assist, not direct, the development and implementation of the Engagement Charter and changes to municipal policies and processes.  Shaping wanted whoever is hired to develop the policies and direct the process. Council didn’t quite see it that way.

One of the eight Shape recommendations was for a Communications Department that would provide timely and reliable information free of political bias. The transformation Shaping Burlington wanted would include a revamped and more frequent City Talk, with  council members encouraged to develop their own communication vehicles.  City Talk is a document the city publishes that includes council member activities in their individual wards.  The council members were not about to give up that free and extremely useful advertising space.

Walker forgot a cardinal rule of politics – keep your name and your picture out there as much as you can.  It is voter recognition that gets politicians re-elected – not what they do – unless they really screw up.

The opportunity to engage at the classroom level was given up by Staff – a speakers list will be drawn up for classrooms to use.  Pity.

Shape Burlington recommended municipal involvement in the Grade 10 Civics program through a module that could be created with input from the City. The proposal received enthusiastic response from school board representatives. “The staff report does not refer to the Grade 10 Civics program in its recommendations to Council, and in a later discussion limits the city’s participation to providing a speakers list.” Shape Burlington envisaged more pro-active participation.

Walker pointed out that the staff report does not refer to a Communications Department transformation, and foresees a continuation of City Talk with some modifications, with space still allocated to members of council.

Shape Burlington recommended that Council periodically hold its meetings in different geographical areas across the City to bring its deliberations closer to the community.  The staff report rejects this recommendation because of logistical and communication challenges. “We believe this is a premature rejection of a strategic objective at this time”, said Walker, so there isn’t going to be a Council road show in different parts of the city – the mountain is still going to have to come to Mohammed.

Walker told the committee that Shaping Burlington looks forward to continued discussion of these and other differences during the ongoing collaborative process.  He had no idea that council was going to have nothing to do with the kind of change the Shaping people wanted, but he pressed on and got into very specific changes in the document.

Craven ripped through Walker when he couldn’t identify Aldershot area community groups.  Cheap shot at a decent man.

Council members asked a couple of questions.  Ward 1 council member Rick Craven ripped through Walker with a bunch of questions that were designed to make Walker look as if he knew nothing about the different community groups in the city.  To his credit Walker stood up to what was really disrespectful behaviour on the part of a council member to a delegation.

Among the specific changes Walker wanted to see were: Authorize the Engagement Officer, not the City Clerk, to work with members of council and staff, recognizing that it is a position of authority.  And that is where the rubber hit the road – council was not giving away as much as an inch of its authority.

The report was accepted as it was presented by staff.  There will be a person hired for a period of time to shepherd the staff report through the civic administration and when that two year period is over – well there might be a change but nothing that resembles what the Shaping people thought they could bring about. 

Walter Mulkewich, a former Mayor of Burlington and co-chair of the Shape Burlington committee that got this all started was unable to attend the committee meeting  but did send a letter in which he said in part:

“I would like to make brief comments regarding the staff report and recommendations with respect to the Shape Burlington Report on “Creating an Engaged Community” in Burlington.

“The position of the original Shape Burlington Committee in its presentation to City Council on May 3, 2010, was that the City implements all the recommendations of the report.   I am satisfied that the Staff report points Council and community in the right direction to begin to do exactly that.

“I am very pleased that City Staff has taken the report and its recommendations seriously, and thoughtfully, and has presented a thorough report to the Committee and Council.  I think that the Staff report has embraced, in large measure, the principles of the Shape Burlington report.  And, I believe the Staff recommendations to Council can establish a process for the City and community to move towards the transformational changes envisaged by Shape Burlington.”

The yellow brick road hasn’t reached Burlington yet.

The yellow brick road hasn’t reached Burlington yet.

When Mulkewich was Mayor of Burlington has wasn’t able to convince his council to move from the title Alderman to Councillor.; this at a time when feminism was close to its peak.  It would not be unrealistic to suggest that neither Mulkewich or Shape Burlington is going to move this council very far down the yellow brick road.


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