For an Effective City Council

There is considerable opportunity for the new HRM Council to be more effective than its predecessor. There are three new councillors, a new mayor, and the chance for a different dynamic because of reduced numbers.

Some members of the previous council, and some media observers, have compared the council to the provincial legislative assembly. The comparison is inappropriate. The legislature is designed to be adversarial. It is rarely a place where decisions are actually made. Most matters are fully debated by cabinet, and sometimes by caucuses, before being debated in the legislature. Deals between parties are usually made out of sight.

Fortunately our council is not made up that way and there is no need for a governing party and an official opposition. Citizens will be best served if everyone is on the same team.

Getting off to a good start is important. Here are some suggestions.

  1. How people are arranged matters. In the previous era the mayor sat on an elevated platform, with the Chief Administrative Officer on one side and the City Solicitor on the other. The 23 councillors sat in a long oval, each in his or her own cubicle, making it very difficult for them to see the others, let alone develop a sense of collective purpose. It is hard to imagine a setup less likely to create a collegial environment.
  2. Bringing the mayor down to the same level (literally) would be a good start. Perhaps more important, arrange the councillors in a way that they can easily see each other. Calgary, which gets by nicely with 14 councillors, has an open semicircle, all on the same level, including them plus the mayor, CAO, and City Solicitor.
  3. Allow committees to do a lot of the heavy lifting. It is difficult and often unproductive to have a large group explore an issue in depth. Getting all of the councillors up to speed on the relevant facts can take a lot of time. It is far better to have a smaller group thoroughly examine a proposal, and only bring it to the full council when they feel that a well informed and well considered recommendation has been developed.
  4. Unless councillors trust each other, the preparatory work in committees may end up being repeated by the full council. Building trust needs time and the opportunity for open and candid discussion.

Council meetings are required by provincial statute to be public except for certain topics which can be discussed in camera such as personnel items, property transactions, and public security. The previous council was sometimes criticized for how on-camera sessions were used.

Council should be willing to endure those criticisms when necessary, and to use the less formal setting to build relationships. This does not mean taking decisions out of sight that should be made in public. But it does mean taking full advantage of opportunities for councillors to exchange ideas in a less structured format.

A city council is more like a board of directors than a legislature. Successful boards, whether public sector or private, regularly take time to examine how well they work. Our city council should do likewise.