This is not directed at those members of Hamilton City Council, who read reports, ask probing questions and generally try to master their portfolios. But it has to be said that too often things are slipping through the cracks in a system that seems designed more to manage City Council than to report to council. There once was a time, when councillors were considered part-time and perhaps could be forgiven for gaps in subject expertise. But now in Hamilton we are paying these representative nearly double the median individual wage and it is time to demand more, now that the municipal level of government is increasingly shouldering the burden in so many aspects of daily life.
Take for example the annual budget process. Council may think they are voting on a budget, but what they are really voting on is a binder full of PowerPoint presentations, crafted by staff who have no incentive whatever to reduce staffing or costs. Nowhere is there line by line financial detail. Many years ago councillors would sit in budget deliberations with massive computer printouts on their desks. Cumbersome, yes, but it led from time to time to some sharp-eyed councillor identifying an opportunity to prune costs. It kept everybody on their toes. At minimum the line-by-line detail should be available on line. That way even if individual councillors are having a snooze, somebody in the public might pick up on something.
The LRT project is rife with examples of critical information being blown past council with little or no scrutiny. The decision in 2008 to reject Bus Rapid Transit on the strength of subjective comments from a select group of LRT zealots in a massive taxpayer-funded Public Relations exercise, is a case in point. Nowhere was a detailed or even cursory technical analysis conducted on a transit solution that could save the province hundreds of millions of dollars and provide better service to the entire community. And then we have news, elsewhere in this publication that council did not see or vote on a critical Environmental Assessment in 2011 and yet agonized for hours this past April debating what was essentially an update on a document they had not seen. Then of course we have the famous 52 votes in favour of the project when most councillors thought they still had an “off-ramp” ahead of them. A shocking dereliction of due diligence.
The kid-glove treatment of the bankrupt Hamilton Waterfront Trust is an example of the majority on council not wishing to cross those members who are board members of the HWT for reasons that are inexplicable. So they turn a blind eye to a litany of screw ups not the least of which is failed financial performance, covered-up lawsuits, nepotism and excessive secrecy. City staff in some cases have allowed themselves to be compromised in enabling this rogue agency.
A couple of scathing reports recently point to an Ontario Works department that is totally dysfunctional, and to the out-of-control use of consultants. These are historic problems that might have been corrected earlier with more active council scrutiny.
What is the answer? First, all members of council who have not, need to master basic financial literacy. There are courses available, and if they are not adequate we are sure some consultant will come along with a program that can be delivered to members. This council spends too much time deferring to one member’s expertise on finance—another’s on construction. It’s time for everyone to shoulder more of the burden and up their game to a level of professionalism commensurate with the demands, and the compensation level of the job. It’s time to pay attention not only to what is put in front of them, but to dig in to what is not. Failing that, maybe it’s time to tap the commemorative jewelry fund for those who are coasting.