Municipal meanderings

Council needs work together and help residents

I recently sent a letter to the editor of in which I argued that “Municipalities need the power to say ’the buck stops here’”. I now add that we need to ensure that municipal councils are working together and functioning well, especially in a crisis. This recognition of the failures of some councils to work together was brought to the fore by the recent occupation of the city of Ottawa — ostensibly to protest vaccine mandates for truckers crossing the border from the US into Canada, but which quickly became a flashpoint for a vocal minority that wanted/want to overthrow the duly elected government of the day (their delusions that they represent the majority and are fighting for ‘freedom’ rather than the reality that they want impose their minority views on the actual majority of Canadians will perhaps be the topic of another post, along with their failure to recognize the rights of others) — and the failures of Ottawa council that were highlighted during that crisis.

In my original letter I argued (and still believe) that as the layer of government that is closest to the residents of an area, that ’lower tier’ municipalities need to have have the legal authority and financial tools to both hold ‘senior’ levels of government to account when the ‘senior’ levels of government fail in meeting the needs of the municipality’s residents for matters in the jurisdiction of the ‘senior’ level(s) of government, as well as for the municipal government to have the authority and money (and even legal obligation) to fill in gaps in meeting needs of residents when ‘senior’ levels of government either fail in their duties, or there are jurisdictional ‘holes’ that leave the residents of the municipality trapped and without help.

Of course that makes the assumption that councils, on the whole, are up to doing and managing this. Despite the failures of Ottawa council (and presumably of other councils) I believe that with the right legal and financial framework, such a system could still work. In part that is because what most people do not understand about any municipal council is that they are supposed to be about governance and not about day to day activities of the municipality, and that a councillor that directs staff or other directly interposes themselves into staff matters is actually breaking the law. There is of course a need for oversight of staff by board (council), through the CAO of the municipality, but this should be about making sure that the municipal staff act with appropriate responsiveness and transparency, rather than about a particular matter. This of course is not what many who want something from the town (or a council member) expect, or are prepared to hear. Some people actually get quite upset at the notion that councilors cannot and should not be directly involved in day to day staff operations, especially when something goes wrong and the resident, ‘just wants it fixed’.

There is a basic level of misunderstanding (even at the provincial level, naming no names) of the proper role of municipal councilors in the activities of staff (and this of course likely carries over into the way some provincial politicians approach provincial politics, which can be even more dangerous and consequential). Ultimately, to avoid ‘mob rule’ a truly functional democratic-style system requires an effective rule of law (of course this requires that enforcement and courts to do their jobs (and do them fairly and with equitable treatment), another issue highlighted during crisis in Ottawa and various border crossings in Canada), and this includes government defining laws, rules, regulations, and policies, but not directly telling the public servants tasked with fulfilling those directives how and when to do their jobs.

This separation of duties is vital avoiding treatment of citizens (or residents in the case of a municipality) that is based on the arbitrary whims of the political mood of the day, as well as protecting citizens, residents, and staff from being penalized for calling out inappropriate or even illegal behaviour (when there is, and there exists proof of, such) on the part politicians. (False rumour mongering has been amplified and made a great deal worse with the advent of social media, and seems to take advantage of the mechanisms that are there protect the public and distorts them in unhealthy ways, which complicates matters). Ultimately the ability to ‘get a fair hearing/opportunity’ is something many take for granted, but is something that should not be. We need to not only protect but enhance this because the ability to generally assume that this is the case is still not true for many minority groups (visible and otherwise), not to mention something that if one doesn’t take care to protect can be lost.

Back to the matter of whether council is up to the job of ensuring the well-being of all residents, given the legal authority and fiances, and legal obligation, to do so: I believe this can be as true or false as for any other level of government, especially if councilors, deputy mayors, and mayors are adequately trained. I think there should in fact be some (free) training required for those seeking to run for any political office on how governance is supposed to work from a separation of duties point of view, to reduce the extent to which those running for political office do so with invalid or unrealistic expectations about what their role.

So, I still say municipalities need to have the power to say ’the buck stops here’, but municipal politicians also need to be provided better training in order to fulfil their duties.