I'm breaking with traditional journalistic convention in this start of the year look ahead post. I'll pass on listing topics of debate in the coming year and tackle a bigger issue.
In 2017, I'll be watch for progress on two culture touchstones, because no matter the issue, they'll define Council's success during the coming year.
The two touchstone issues are dignity and diligence.
Will Councillors uphold and enhance the dignity of their offices in 2017?
Council decorum continued to decline in 2016.
2016 saw Councillor Lloyd Ferguson insult an entire nationality and only one Councillor spoke up on the issue to challenge the undignified stereotyping.
2016 saw Deputy Mayor Donna Skelly scorning citizens for daring to stand up for City staff when Councillor Judi Partridge took a cheap shot at a staff member who worked late the night before responding to Councillors questions - because with months to prepare for their special Council LRT meeting in October, Councillors were still sending questions the night prior.
Instead of dealing with their decorum issues, and returning dignity to the Chamber, Councillors often walk out of meetings, leaving the rest of us at the mercy of the worst among them.
Will they act in 2017 to return dignity to the Council Chamber and City Hall?
It's not just at City Hall that Councillors undermine the dignity of their offices and public processes.
In September, Councillors Skelly and Terry Whitehead interrupted a Council meeting to declare they needed to go to a staff-led LRT public information meeting. After an argument in Council, and some undignified body language (pictured above), Skelly and Whitehead returned to their seats. Later than evening, they hijacked the public information session.
The dignity of their public offices require they allow non-partisan staff organized public information sessions to occur without political interference. Councillors are free, and encouraged, to organize their own town halls and to engage in their political advocacy on public matters in those appropriate forums. They didn't do that either.
Dignity is a touchstone that if Council achieve in 2017, they'll be able to properly manage and navigate issues both foreseen and unforeseen in 2017. Without it, citizens respect for Council will continue crumble, much like the retaining walls of the Claremont Access.
Diligence is a word rarely associated with Hamilton City Council.
They show up late to meetings, often unprepared, and its not unusual for meetings to be cancelled when not enough Councillors show up to make quorum.
Long-term prioritization and diligent management of public resources get lost in Council's narrow short-term focus on political posturing.
In 2012, when the first retaining wall of the Claremont Access burst, Council was told they needed to study the retaining walls and start planning to replace the wall, or at least mitigation as a band-aid. Instead, they closed a lane and now four years later, all of the down-bound lanes are completely closed. The millions of dollars in 2012 are tens of millions today, and that doesn't even account for the economic costs of the long-term closure of the down-bound Claremont.
Diligence requires more than waiting for pipes to burst, retaining walls to fail, or rocks falling off the side of the escarpment before addressing infrastructure issues.
For years, Council has been told their management of Hamilton's finances is unsustainable, and that reserve accounts were being drained.
Council uses the strategic reserve accounts as if they were free money, regularly drawing on them to artificially support operational spending. Even now, facing a fiscal crisis of their own making, Councillors are trying to pass the buck to future years.
Instead of approving the full capital tax rate increase recommended by staff, Councillors voted to cut 0.5% from the capital budget, which will add millions more to Hamilton's over $2-billion infrastructure deficit as that 0.5% cut compounds over the years.
The 0.5% cut plays well in the short-term, 'hey look ratepayers, I cut your taxes by a half-percent', but much like the Claremont retaining walls and watermains, eventually things burst and taxpayers are on the hook for even higher costs.
I get it, Councillors have a lot to read - I try to read every staff report for every committee, and sometimes run out of time to do so. Pictured below is a typical two week cycle of reading during budget deliberations.
For Councillors, that's the job they not only volunteered for, it's the job they campaigned for.
With a $90,000/year salary (the Mayor's salary is over $200,000/year), support staff, taxpayer funded lunches, and a generous pension plan, Councillors cannot complain about the workload.
Prioritization must be done, and if they means instead of socializing and glad-handing for votes at every spaghetti dinner on the weekend, they are reading their agendas and studying issues, that is the diligence their public office requires.
Too often, Councillors are asking questions during meetings that have already been answered in the reports they were suppose to read.
The average staff report costs thousands of dollars to produce, Council meetings themselves cost thousands of dollars per hour, and hours of expensive preparation in advance on top of those costs.
This is the proper expense of good governance.
In the private sector, it is the same for Board of Directors. The difference in the private sector is directors are expected to show up prepared for the meeting - lest they waste shareholders money.
During meetings, Councillors need to ask insightful and meaningful questions, while being respectful of the time of others.
Officially, Council has a five-minute rule for questions and comments.
In 2016, we witnessed a Councillor take over two-and-a-half hours for their first question. Even after almost four hours of the Councillor monopolizing time and badgering staff, even when Councillor Tom Jackson said enough, the Deputy Mayor let it continue.
Picture below, Terry Whitehead in the middle of his first question on that date:
Diligence isn't just preparation, it's showing up to work on time, or in the case of our Council, just showing up to work.
Over a dozen Council committee meetings were cancelled in 2016 due to not enough Councillors attending meetings, many cancellations announced the day of or day prior to the meeting. Even when enough Councillors show up to start a meeting, it's an open question if enough of them will remain to keep quorum.
The longest Council meeting since amalgamation in 2000 was October's LRT debate. As the lengthy record approached, Mayor Eisenberger tried to end the meeting, but was foiled by a lack of quorum. The resulting video clip perfectly sums up the problem of quorum at Council.
Council just completed the Our Future Hamilton strategic community vision plan. As the plan enters its second year of implementation, it's already drawing comparisons to the unfulfilled Vision 20/20 plan which proceeded it.
The turning of the calendar from 2016 to 2017 is an opportunity for Council to reflect, and focus themselves on the tasks at hand.
Will they address their own culture in order to move the City of Hamilton forward, or will 2017 be a repeat of the 16 years of post-amalgamation Council politics?
City Council returns from their four-week break on January 16, The Public Record will be there to let you find out and watch Council for another year.
In the meanwhile, you can join The Public Record at The Pub for a discussion of another big issue in Hamilton - the suburban/urban divide. Dr. Zachary Spicer of Brock University will speak about his research into the topic and his recent book The Boundary Bargain: Growth, Development and the Future of City-County Separation published by McGill-Queen's University Press.
The event is Thursday, January 12 from 7 to 9pm at the Corktown Pub. If you've resolved to be even more engaged in 2017, this is a great event to start fulfilling that resolution. Feel free to show up early for dinner and informal conversation. Full details on The Public Record's Facebook page.