Mayor chats it up with the commercial sector; knows most of the people by their first name.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON. March 25, 2013  The Mayor met with members of the Chamber of Commerce Friday morning to give them an update on where things were going with the city and how he was dealing with the problems that cross his desk.

The crowd this time around wasn’t as large as it has been in the past.  So – what do we know now that we didn’t know before?  Well Mayor Goldring has decided the focus for the rest of this term of office has to be on getting jobs and new employers into the city.

The Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) is being totally revised and will be coming back to Council with a new mandate that will focus totally on bringing new business to the city.  The BEDC has had challenges it wasn’t able to meet in the past given the business model they were stuck with.  City Manager Jeff  Fielding saw the problem and asked that a  re-make of that organization be a priority.

The Mayor answered all their questions; there just weren’t very many of them and none seemed to touch on the serious problem with the Industrial, Commercial and Institutional  sector tax revenue.

Part of the problem is that the people doing the remake are basically the same people who oversaw what BEDC was doing in the past.  Was city manager Fielding the only person to see that the model they had wasn’t working?  In the three years our Burlington has been covering the BEDC we didn’t see any suggestions that the mandate was flawed and not sustainable come before any city council committee.

Something put a fire underneath the BEDC board.  A former advisor to Mayor Goldring thought the best thing that could be done was to blow the board up and start afresh.  The BEDC has a twenty member board – is that too large.  Most of the big five Canadian banks don’t have boards that size.

Are the right people on that board?  Are there people on that board doing more to ensure their own interests are protected rather than being focused on the long-term economic growth of the city?  Is there anyone on that board asking the hard questions?  We were impressed with what we saw of the work Paul Subject, president  of STANMECH Technologies Inc. was doing.

BEDC Executive Director Kyle Benham has his hands full with the development of position papers, project development and both re-building and re-orienting what BEDC can and should be doing for the city is serves at arm’s-length.

Last December the BEDC board received a Transitional Plan and then created an ad hoc committee to amend BEDC’s operating model and business plan to create a land development corporation.  The public hasn’t seen that Transitional Plan yet nor do we know who the members of the ad hoc committee are.

Burlington had a situation where two city council members, the Mayor and Ward 1 Councillor Rick Craven, sat on the Performing Arts board that went from a half a million dollar requirement to one that ballooned to over $1 million – so keeping representation like that on our boards would not seem to be in the best interests of the taxpayers.

Having a public that is fully informed works best in a democracy; having boards and committees that are closed – even secretive at times, results in closed thinking at best and cronyism at worst.  We deserve better from the people out there representing us.

The BEDC held a workshop last Friday that wasn’t public so we don’t know what they did.

One of the interesting bits of information the Mayor mentioned, almost in passing, at the Chamber breakfast, was that Burlington has more than 60 business operations in the city that work on water issues; they do things with water and there was the sense that there may be an opportunity to look at this cluster and see if there are ways to support what they  do and attract other companies in the water business to the city.

Burlington isn’t known for anything specific in the commercial world; we’ve got a bit of everything.  Hamilton has steel mills – well had steel mills would be a more accurate statement.

The people doing the economic thinking for this city (we really don’t know who they are) are of the view that looking for possible clusters of companies where three or four companies will draw others of the same type is a possible economic advantage.  That’s got potential.

Later in the year Goldring will be traveling to Germany to meet with companies over there that have operations in Burlington and see if there are ways some of the operations can be expanded.

Sandy Thomson, chief thinker over at Thomson Gordon Group pauses while answering a question on what he wants to see in the way of better heritage protection

Wage costs – always of interest to the business community.  The Mayor sketched out the problem all the municipalities have with their unionized labour forces, particularly those involved in public safety.  When there are differences of opinion over a labour contract the province appoints an Interest Arbitration.  The results of those arbitrations have been giving the municipal sector significant grief – the labour side seems to be winning all the time.  The Mayors in the province want the “capacity to pay” to be part of what gets looked at – and they would like to see the process moved along a little faster.  Goldring pointed out that some of these arbitrations take as long as three years to get resolved.

The firemen in Burlington have in the past chosen to show their muscle.  At one budget discussion meetings there were close to half a dozen of them  at one table and took over the discussion.  On another occasion a group of fireman all sat in the public gallery at a council meeting.  Those displays are part of ensuring their voice is heard.  The fireman were all over the Dalton McGuinty provincial election.

The Mayor had a decent meeting with the business sector – until the very end when there were no more questions.  Those that he did get were perhaps planted and certainly softball in nature.  That’s part of the way things get done at Chamber events.  What was awkward was leaving the Mayor standing at the podium when there were clearly no more questions.  His hosts should have moved to the podium – thanked him for his time and given him the round of applause he had earned.  Instead he was left standing there.  Awkward indeed!

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