There was a municipal election in Burlington 25 years ago, and a photo of Council shows 17 people for a population of less than 130,000 in 1991. Today, it’s only 7 members – for a population in excess of 175,000 in 2016! How does that measure up with our neighbours in Halton?
Oakville? 13 members for more than 180,000.
Milton? 9 for more than 100,000 (and rising).
Halton Hills? 11 for more than 60,000.
How about other nearby small cities?
Guelph? 13 for more than 120,000.
Cambridge? 9 for more than 130,000.
Brantford? 11 for more than 95,000.
I could go on. You get my point.
Today’s interconnected world is much faster, more complex and more demanding than in 1991.
Life has changed dramatically. Population density, traffic congestion and other troubling issues in the GTHA bubble are bursting.
While we live in a beautiful city and region, fundamental problems seeking real solutions and strong leadership can be found nearly everywhere.
The decrease in Council’s size was a well-intentioned move in the right direction. Regrettably, that pendulum swung too far. Council fatigue has firmly settled in.
A telling example is how weary and wary our Mayor and Councillors appear at Council meetings. Who can blame them? In fairness, who could properly get through all of the reading materials thrown at them (whether paper or electronic), investigate all of the truly important matters (after filtering through the truly less important ones), and genuinely listen to their constituents (as a reminder, improved civic engagement was the rallying cry when this Council was first elected in 2010)?
No wonder Council members often have their heads down, relying heavily on staff reports (is it an unwillingness to challenge them, or lack of preparation?) and rarely looking or standing up to offer strikingly innovative or breakthrough ideas.
Visionary and bold do not describe this Council. Caretaking seems more appropriate.
To be clear, Council’s work is not easy or straightforward, nor is it restricted to Council chambers.
There’s also the incredible time and energy drains of dealing with cats getting caught in trees, ribbons getting cut, photos getting taken, calls getting made, emails getting returned and getting to countless meetings and events.
Not to mention constant public pressure, as Council goes about their work.
Having said that, though, there’s really not much in the way of public scrutiny. Local media is virtually non-existent in Burlington, and it infrequently provides actual in-depth news reporting or analysis anyway.
It’s exhausting merely to try to visualize Council’s unrelenting work schedule, and the personal sacrifices involved, especially for a completely undersized team with an overwhelming to-do list.
Council lives with that reality.
Despite Council’s best efforts, have you noticed that public discontent keeps bubbling to the surface lately, replacing our usual general disengagement or disinterest with local matters? And we’re not talking about the Pier anymore.
Citizens seem increasingly frustrated with and anxious about Council – with big and small tipping points.
It’s no surprise that one natural conclusion and overriding factor can explain, in large part, why this Council gets such unfavourable or unenthusiastic reviews, and why it has seemingly been so unproductive and uninspiring despite 6 long years together. We’re talking about burnout.
Increasing the size of Council is inevitable, and would represent an important step and signal to reenergize Council as part of a long-overdue governance review (e.g. Council isn’t leading by example when a comprehensive Code of Conduct for City Staff doesn’t apply to them, and their own minimalist code is inadequate and outdated).
The potential and promise for better decision-making would be the most tantalizing outcome.
With a larger group, there’s real opportunity to elect a more dynamic, inclusive and representative Council for an evolving Burlington – hopefully, more diverse backgrounds and more progressive thinking will be brought to the table as a result. Consider the alternative of maintaining the status quo and expecting a different outcome.
It’s time to cleanse the stale air of a tired “small club” environment, and breathe new life into a modern Council to help it build an even greater community for the longer term.
Written by: Brian Heagle
Brian Heagle is a local lawyer, Burlington Citizen of the Year (2009), City Council candidate (2010) and co-host of weekly current affairs show, #TheIssue, on CogecoTV.