Our Yukon correspondent, Kirk Cameron, revisits his first year as a Whitehorse city councillor. With wry wit Cameron takes us back to the year that was in Yukon politics and expounds on the lessons learnt.
[dropcap_1]W[/dropcap_1]ell, it’s been a little more than one year. On December 1, 2011 I was elected to Whitehorse City Council at a by-election, and in October this past year the electorate returned me for a three year term. It has been a most interesting year, not so much because of the range of issues that Council faced, but because of what I learned about governance at the municipal level. Surprisingly, this new education has given me pause for thought about the other levels of government that influence the lives of northerners, indeed all Canadians. Ultimately, where this goes is to the heart of our democratic system; do the structures in place serve our democracy well, or is there work to do?
This new education of which I speak has not resulted by studying books (where in the past I’ve normally spent my time), but by diving deep into the structure of municipal government and witnessing it from the “inside” as a working politician.
[dropcap_1]S[/dropcap_1]o what have I learned?
Well, before offering my list, I must admit that I’m surprised with the amount I’ve had to learn! I graduated with a degree in History from the University of Victoria and have spent time at an institution in Kingston Ontario (not the penitentiary but studying at Queen’s University). In both instances my studies gave me grounding in the ways of the British Parliamentary system. I then spent 20 years in government (federal, provincial and territorial) in bureaucratic positions that gave me a “bird’s eye” view of how government in the Westminster system works. I even wrote a couple of books and a number of articles on governance and constitutional issues relating to these esteemed levels of government in Canada. You’d think this would have given me a good handle on what to expect when moving into the municipal political arena. NOT!
Among many lessons I have learned, the following stand out.
First, municipal politics is incredibly complicated. The pie is not divvied up among Ministers who need to get a handle on a single portfolio as in the federal and provincial/territorial systems. All seven of us on Council are expected to bring a level of understanding to every issue facing Council. When we vote, we vote as independents, and are expected to bring a level of competency to all matters before us (ably assisted by a competent public service I might add). So, now I find myself an expert in land planning, engineering of municipal (water and sewer) infrastructure, sustainability planning, transportation, and, yes, as you’ll recall from my earlier blog, how to integrate urban chickens within our neighborhoods.
Although technically “not our responsibility”, we must also embrace topics such as homelessness, public safety, affordable housing, federal infrastructure programs targeted at municipal infrastructure, and economic development, because of their impacts on people in our community.
And, of course, there’s always the pesky need to ensure that our finances are in order considering annual capital and O&M budgets that somehow never quite fit the revenue projections.
Second, as one might expect, the main role of the elected official is to stay “tuned in” to the community pulse. I thought this part would be easy having spent much of my life in this fine City, but I’m finding it is one of the most difficult of challenges. No matter how many people show up to provide perspective on an issue we face on Council, there’s always a counter-voice saying that those who show up are merely a fringe group, not reflecting the dominant view of society. Inevitably, on most contentious matters, it comes down to a “gut reaction”, employing the instincts that come with many years involved in the community.
Third, and perhaps the greatest of surprises to me in my adventure moving into municipal politics, is the level to which issues bring out passion, not only in those among the citizenry who bring issues forward, but in me. Time and time again, I find myself personally driven to find solutions to challenges faced by my friends and neighbors, and all those other people who up ‘til now I’ve not had the pleasure of knowing in my community (and there are, as I’ve found out, many of those!). Objectivity goes only so far, and is soon overshadowed by the personal need to try to find the “right course”. And, is it not funny that where in the past I would be unhappy with my private time being invaded by residents with issues, now, I find myself looking forward to my walks around town, and even standing in the grocery and bank line ups. Here’s where I find the most meaningful contributions from my fellow citizens. Add to this the 11:00 p.m. calls on a Sunday evening, and you get the picture.
Fourth, in conflict with the last point, there is this amazingly deep formal process that has evolved in municipal governance that is so very different from what has evolved in the Westminster system embraced at the territorial/provincial and federal levels. Now that I’ve done a little research, it’s apparent that the municipal system is significantly older than the structures and system in place at the “senior” levels of government. Through a combination of time-honored traditions as part of a history that actually pre-dates Medieval European times, our modern system of municipal law, and the requirements demanded by our courts to ensure the principle of fairness is achieved in all actions by our municipal government in its decision-making, the seven of us find ourselves in a delicate world of checks and balances where we need to balance off citizens’ interests, good public policy, legal requirements and time-honored tradition in how we do our job as part-time elected officials!
Yet, might I say, I’m “hooked”. The municipal system has given me new insight on how government can be a direct reflection of the interests of the citizenry, the people who put us in Office. I’m not saying that the party political system at the territorial and federal levels should be dispatched in favor of the municipal system, but I am compelled to say that if we could somehow bring more of the municipal style to those senior governments more of us would be willing to state that these senior governments reflect the will of the people.
[dropcap_1]T[/dropcap_1]here are profoundly challenging issues facing our senior governments, yet, we find in the local papers commentary on the Members of the Legislature and Government like the following:
[blockquote]Sure, more substance would be nice, but we’d also like to see more style. With plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the House, we’re recommending that our MLAs attend a crash course at Wood Street’s Music, Arts and Drama program. The students there could surely teach our representatives what theatre, political or otherwise, can look like.
[Editorial, “We miss Dennis Fentie, just a little”; Friday December 14, 2012][/blockquote]
At first this comment was of little concern when I read it (indeed I enjoyed this editorial very much at first). It was, after all, a reflection of the “tongue-in-cheek” attitude of the media that finds pleasure in the antics of government display. But, thinking about it “darkly” over the past few days, it occurs to me that we’ve got this all wrong. Why should we hope that our senior government’s elected officials be better actors? Why should we not hope that they bring to government (that would be our government) intelligence, discipline, the willingness to listen and reflect on the public interest, and advanced leadership and judgment skills? Why are they spending time (translate this into our tax dollars) with the antics now commonly witnessed in Question Period, and not focused working actively with many of us looking to solve issues around crime, substance abuse, affordable housing shortages, the list is long…
A second observation coming from my musings on the differences between the territorial and municipal governments is this very matter of engagement with the people. I find, now that I’m inside municipal government, that the seven on Council are not allowed to come together for informal “off the record” discourse on matters. All of our discussions when there is quorum must be considered as a formal meeting of Council, held in public and with the mandatory notices given. This is part of the reality faced by municipal governments today. So much for popping into the local coffee shop with friends on Council to compare notes on Christmas shortbread recipes. This can only be done if we are prepared to divulge our families’ well-guarded secrets to our fellow citizenry!
Seriously though, the rules largely emanating from Court rulings are clear that we on Council are to meet only under the watchful eye of those whom we serve (there are a few exceptions in areas such as labor relations and individual privacy rights, but this is a pretty short list). Yet, ironically, up the “food chain”, we find that the two senior governments, territorial and federal, place great emphasis on the capacity to hold the decision-making process “close to the chest”. Political caucuses are treated as private clubs, and therefore discussions occur in camera. Information regarding the debates inside cabinet and associated committees such as Treasury Board are considered sensitive, and thus not for public consumption. This includes much (though not all) of the documentation that is produced by the public service and political staffers brought to these august bodies for decision.
I find these great differences in the cultures of engagement to be thought-provoking. Perhaps it is time for us to give a little attention to the differences in these cultures to see if there are ways to bring what I see as the positive features of the municipal world to that of the senior governments. Perhaps then we would find editorialists more willing to spend time on the substance of issues at debate in our legislatures, and less on the capacity of those elected to achieve standing as accomplished actors.
[dropcap_1]I[/dropcap_1]n conclusion, my time on Council has given me additional perspective for my musing about governance reform in our nation. There’s a different way we can do this nation’s business, and perhaps there are lessons learned from the level of government most closely linked to the “people on the street”. Ultimately it is a matter of the efficacy of democracy. The institutions and associated rules and procedure are supposed to be about connecting the will of the people to the decision-making bodies in place to provide that illusive “good governance”. Today, many throughout our nation are looking carefully at these structures to find ways to reinvigorate the democracy we hold so dear. Fair Vote Canada is a body emanating from the “grass roots” that has taken on this challenge, arguing that we are not well served when so many of us just stay away from the ballot box at all levels of government. The question is, thus, what can we do to redefine our institutions to get to the greater immediacy that I have found at the municipal level? Is there a way? Well, maybe, and perhaps it is time to give careful thought to this when at all levels of public policy we are facing critical questions that need citizenry and politician working “hand in glove”.
Some thoughts to consider as we move into a new year, 2013!!! Where does the time go?
Photo credit: Yukon White Light under a creative commons license.