Term limits for municipal council members should be debated as to its merits and flaws. In the first of three articles, Leo F. Longo stops short of making a recommendation, and instead provides a historical summary of changes to term limits in Ontario. If we take instead the view of the Association of Municipalities in Ontario (AMO), there may be a clear case to be made that there would be measured public support for legislating four-year terms. 
Initially, council members were only elected for a single-year term, changing in Ontario in 1906 to permit a two-year term. This again was changed in 1944 to allow a staggered election whereby half the council members’ term would expire. At this time, there was still a heavy preference or preponderance for single-year terms, and there was no province-wide cohesion on this issue until 1972 with the Municipal Elections Act when two-year terms were standardized across the province. By 1982, some municipalities moved to three-year terms, while most remained with the 1972 legislation until 2006 when four-year terms were introduced.
Benefits of moving to longer terms include:
Sufficient time to develop and implement an agenda, and to obtain public feedback to evaluate its effectiveness. This prevents too much “mission creep” or discontinuity of purpose.
Drawbacks would include:
* Voters being “stuck” with an ineffective council that cannot generate consensus around an agenda. This is especially the case in ward-centric municipalities that have been amalgamated, and lack a municipality-wide view.
Given that municipal councils are not organized political parties, this may pose a difficulty in providing “follow-through and continuity [and so] a turnover of councillors following an election can bring a marked break in momentum or shift in emphasis.”
Sources and Notes
 In Longo, L. (2014). Term Limits for Municipal Council Members: Part One: Length of Council Terms. Municipal World, April: 13-15. It should be noted that the AMO background paper found a discrepancy between respondents on this question, pending if they were rural or urban residents. Also, four-year term limits were established as of 2006.
Review and Comments on Slack and Bird, "Does Amalgamation Strengthen the Financial Viability of Local Government?"
The Harris era restructuring that led to widespread amalgamation of municipalities and school boards, as well as downloading ever more service responsibilities, was seen by the provincial government of the day as a silver bullet for achieving significant cost-savings. This would be achieved by “reaping economies of scale” and coordinating “service delivery across local boundaries.” Bound up in these assumptions was a significant adoption of neoliberal inspired concepts such as New Public Management, and down-shift responsibilization . In their report , Slack and Bird evaluate what, if any, cost-savings were achieved due to amalgamation, with a specific focus on Toronto as a case study.
The abrupt municipal amalgamation exercise reduced the number of municipalities from 815 in 1995 to 447 in 2001, which also significantly reduced the number of councillors. It should be noted that cost-savings on this alone would be fairly negligible with respect to the overall municipal budget compared to other budget items such as transportation, protection, and the provision of social services. The Harris Government sought to encourage entrepreneurial opportunities for municipalities for alternative service delivery via the Building the Ontario Public Service for the Future. 
These costs, however, were not fully realized, or were masked by other factors such as property tax reform and the LSR. Other additional costs included:
There is still dispute over whether or not significant cost savings were achieved as a result of the drastic restructuring, or if savings were offset by new costs such as those associated with transitioning to a new merged municipality, the increased burden of additional service delivery (lightened somewhat by the subsequent provincial government), and the effects of property tax reform. Where the authors seem to be in agreement is in the less tangible costs, such as more fragmentation of community identity in the larger municipalities, and decreased civic engagement.
Sources and Notes:
 Slack, E. and Richard Bird (2013). Does Municipal Amalgamation Strengthen the Financial Viability of Local Government? A Canadian Example
 The term is referenced in the governmentality literature of the mid-1990s. See Bourdieu, P. (1999). The abdication of the state In P. Bourdieu (Ed.), The weight of the world: Social suffering in contemporary society: 181-8. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; Peck, Jamie and Adam Tickell (2002). Neoliberalizing Space. Antipode 34 (3): 380-404. In a vast majority of applications of responsibilization, this is brought about through a process of market-based rationalization and a belief in disempowering liberal welfare state models of governance.
 Burak, R. (1997). Building Ontario Public Service for the Future: A Framework for Action. Ontario. Management Board of Cabinet. Secretariat. Toronto.
The main thrust of Pappert’s article  is that a wholesale shift is required in how we understand and operate at the municipal level given the pressures of change from technological innovations, demographic shift, the networked economy, and the widespread adoption of social media. Meanwhile, despite increasing dependence on government, there is a correlative increasing distrust in elected officials and administration that may be tied to the “old way of doing business.” Transformation, argues Pappert, must be total and not simply ad hoc revisions.
It is only by proactively anticipating and embracing change that municipal leadership will still remain viable and responsive to the changing needs and demands of the citizenry. Some of these changes may include demonopolizing information and aiming for more transparency while ensuring appropriate narrative context, emphasis on team-based leadership and collaboration, showing the courage to retire no longer operable practices, the responsibility of municipal leaders to keep apprised of what is being done in other municipalities, and to adopt a proactive stance on long-range planning.
In particular, an emphasis on team-based leadership and collaboration, as well as retiring older notions and practices that are no longer applicable in the current context. Inspiring courage is key, and part of the way of mitigating some of the less desirable outcomes is to change the narrative so that failure is viewed as a learning experience. Also, by taking collective ownership of a problem, this reinforces the team-based aspect of leadership already referenced.
Municipalities are no stranger to change, be it the transition to the early reformist movement that precipitated the creation of special purpose bodies and an attempt to focus on administrative function rather than representative roles, the postwar challenges with increasing urbanization and land planning, the citizen demand for more engagement during the 1960s, the experiments in regional government in the 1970s, reform of the county structure in the 1980s, up through the drastic effects of the Harris-era amalgamations. At times, the change is gradual, whereas at other times it is painfully abrupt. Anticipating change is indeed important, but it is also important to identify the source of those changes, and to determine what resources and means (financial, legal, intergovernmental, etc) are at the disposal of the municipality to contend with change. There is very little a municipality can do to prevent or accelerate change that is externally sourced - such as a natural disaster, legislative changes by the province, the oscillations of the global market, etc. It can, however, adapt internal policies that can at least be ready and responsive to changes, whether positive, negative, or simply a change of state (such as the adoption of social media). Good collegial and collaborative attitudes will better prevail in the face of such changes than to remain ossified in no longer workable practices or in cleaving to a silo mentality.
 Pappert, Ann. (2014).“Transformation in Local Government.” Municipal World. 124.10: 21-3.
Comments and Reflections on Zack Taylor's Article "If Different, Then Why?: Explaining the Divergent Political Development of Canadian and American Local Governance"
Taylor’s article  provides us with a more detailed historical analysis of how the reform movement - as described in the MAP textbook - sought to disempower local councils in favour of business interests, and compares the degrees of respective autonomy between the US and Canada. As the textbook makes clear, rapid urbanization and industrialization also saw an increase in necessary services, such as roads, garbage collection, parks and recreation, etc. Vocal business interests were becoming increasingly frustrated with the structural impediments of municipal governments, particularly with respect to councils’ representative role. In point of fact, businesses desired to depoliticize local government and narrow its role to administrative functions aided in part by specialized professionals - a view of local government that seems to be coming back into favour. Some of these reforms resulted in movements to abolish wards, the creation of a strong executive in the form of a Board of Control, the creation of a “beefed up” administrative head such as a city manager, and the establishment of various boards and commissions that would reduce the influence of councillors on key decisions with respect to service delivery needs. Such reforms would come under the auspices of lessening legislative burden by delegating authority in key areas, especially in the face of the increasing complexity of service demands arising from more urbanization.
Institutions embody certain structural assumptions in their practices of power and the distribution or delegation of authority, whereby the existing structure of federalism and provincial regulation would strongly define roles, rules, and responsibilities of municipalities, thus also presenting constraints upon - and conflict with - ideas, interests and innovation. It is the institutions that prescribe the affordances, and centralized regulatory mechanisms can stifle innovation.
One historical question of note Taylor addresses is why Canadian municipalities did not adopt the “home rule” model of governance as found south of the border. It should be noted that home rule has its merits and flaws; on one hand, there is more freedom to pursue initiatives without upper government interference, but on the other hand it has been shown to further exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities as well as unequal delivery of services.
Ultimately, Taylor’s article tells the story of the powerful reform movement and the state of autonomy (or lack thereof) played out in the early 20th century in Canada. The drive to reduce municipal councils to a simply administrative role, and the increasing expenditures to meet service demands, has returned in a new garb. What remains to be seen is if there were also be a resurgence in the demand from citizens to restore the representative aspect, as happened in the 1960s. Local government scholars have already pointed out the increase in interest for improving civic engagement and citizen participation in municipal affairs, and it is possible that increased use of social media with its built in affordances of instant communication, large social graph, and decentralized multilateral discussion format, may precipitate change in this direction. It also remains to be seen if provincial governments will repeat how they responded to the increasing service cost burden of municipalities, or if a new and more equitable deal can be brokered (such as changing the tax formula, or the distribution of unconditional grants). Such change, however, seems unlikely, and commercial interests may prevail a while longer.
Sources and notes
 Taylor, Zack. (2014). "If Different, then Why? Explaining the Divergent Political Development of Canadian and American Local Governance." International Journal Of Canadian Studies 49: 53-79.
 Taylor adopts an approach similar to that of Thorstein Veblen’s; namely, the strong role institutions play in determining culture. In Veblen’s view, institutions and their practices are the source of change or invariance in cultural and technological forms (Veblen’s use of technology is more aligned with the 19th century German term Technik, which strongly favours technology as engineering).
Local governments are facing critical challenges with respect to internal and external change. Although the Ontario Provincial Government has uploaded some of the services that were downloaded unto municipalities during the Harris years via the LSR exercise, municipalities are still tasked with a very wide range of service delivery responsibilities in the face of increasing resident expectations, aging population, infrastructural deficit, and economic volatility.
Exacerbating these challenges would be some degree of confusion as to “who does what,” sub-optimal means of communication whereby municipal leaders are not vocalizing their challenges effectively (to residents and upper levels of government), and an ill-suited property taxation system that does not afford the revenue-generation flexibility municipalities require to meet budgetary needs in providing sufficient service delivery or making the necessary capital expenditures to repair or build new infrastructure, replace aging fleets and facilities, and upgrading equipment (just to name a few).
Hume’s article takes aim specifically at the need for taxation reform that would better acknowledge the inequality of taxation collection between different levels of government and the services provided. In essence, a revisiting of the revenue sharing model between different levels of government is required, especially in light of infrastructure needs. Although Hume does not specify this in his article, even maintaining an existing sufficient level of physical infrastructure in a municipality will invariably lead to higher costs per fiscal year given such factors as labour and material costs alone. During the period extending from the Rae Government’s “fiscal neutrality” exericse, through the Harris Government LSR, service swaps were arguably unequal as they took a discrete fiscal moment in time with respect to costs as though comparable between services such as road maintenance and social assistance. In reality, such costs fluctuate over time (social assistance is contingent upon such factors as unemployment rates that may increase or decrease costs, while the cost of maintaining roads shows a consistent increase over time).
Hume warns against the consequences of “doing more with less,” which is part of the neoliberal model of downloading risk and responsibilization to local actors and individuals (cf. the work of David Harvey, Peck & Tickell. and Christian Fuchs et al). Hume rightly points out that there are limits to “doing more with less” as there may come a point when the only means by which to meet core service delivery targets is to engage in a drastic cost-cutting exercise that may reduce or remove valued services from a community. This accelerates budgetary unsustainability and community dissatisfaction.
Hume also references shared responsibility as part of a broader alternative framework for service delivery, and such activities have been in the offing if we consider PPP (public-private partnerships) whereby services are contracted out to private companies, or efforts such as ceding responsibility to service clubs, non-profit organizations, etc., that may take on (for example) the responsibilities of maintaining a swimming pool or community centre. Shared services have emerged between municipalities: e.g., the sharing of a Fire Chief in the municipalities of Bluewater and Central Huron). It should be noted that there may be issues in pursuing PPPs, especially given that private companies are motivated by profit rather than the public interest, and that accountability to the public may be lower. Also, a problem with ceding more responsibilities to service clubs - inasmuch as this depends on a strong social capital network of voluntarism - would be that service burdens might become unsustainable. And, finally, a problem with shared roles might include such issues as conflict of interest between municipalities being served by the same individual.
Hume points to improvements in IT as a potential tool for developing more cost-efficient methods for service delivery. His view demonstrates a complicity in proselytizing globalization and the integration of information technologies without necessarily addressing some of the problems associated with said integration (for example, streaming Council meetings does not necessarily improve transparency, accountability, or even citizen engagement; the use of social media also contains inherent problems of attention fragmentation and a reliance on brevity over substance, if not “reactive” rather than reflective forms of engagement). Technological change is not a necessary and sufficient condition to the development of creative, dynamic communities any more than a hammer is the necessary and sufficient condition for building a house. It should be noted that, from the perspective of political economy, various aspects of globalization and information society should be properly scrutinized rather than simply adopted without more critical inquiry.
Place-making also features in this article, and is tied to notions of grassroots community development, mixed-use housing, and eco-friendly spaces. Each of these items requires a significant level of detail and exploration that the spatial constraints of the article does not afford. This can be especially problematic for smaller municipalities that may have more socioeconomic homogeneity. and where the NIMBYism of the urban reform movement may be more vocally opposed to such policies as the provision of more affordable housing or public transit.
Summarily, Hume itemizes many of the challenges many municipalities are intimately familiar with, and he subsequently transmutes these into potential opportunities if certain conditions are met such as property tax reform for fairer revenue sharing, cultivating more shared services partnerships, mixed-use housing, and effective IT integration. In such a way, Hume attempts to demonstrate options for creating opportunities out of challenges. What Hume does not make clear is that a one size fits all approach may not suit every municipality, and that adjustments to aspects of scale and pace of transformation must be tailored to the individual socioeconomic conditions of each respective municipality, cognizant of their capacity for change (personnel, equipment, etc).
The 2012 FCM Report paints a slightly improving picture with respect to municipalities after some decades of decline in key areas that contributed to a fiscal imbalance between responsibilities and resources. Of note, although there has been some improvement with regards to property taxes as a proportion of own-source revenues in municipal budgets since 2004 (decreasing from ~53% to 1995 levels of just under 50%), the proportion of general-purpose grants has decreased while specific-purpose have increased (the latter are conditional or earmarked funds from the Province for specific projects). And, although there has been some improvement with respect to Gas Tax transfer funds, and the Building Canada Fund (BCF), there are still parlous shortfalls precipitated by overall decline of intergovernmental transfers as proportion of municipal budgets, and the regressive property tax model that precipitates less capital and expenditure revenue for critical infrastructure repairs and local service delivery. It should also be noted that, despite some reversals by the provincial Liberal government in uploading services that were downloaded during the Harris era’s LSR exercise, the fiscal imbalance still remains (albeit less bleak). Also, the cost of municipal policing and fire protection has seen an increase, which for some small and rural municipalities, can prove particularly challenging and which can represent the highest costs in the annual budget. In response to budgetary challenges, some municipalities have sought creative and alternative ways of increasing own-source revenues such as through user fees, voluntary and involuntary hotel taxes, signage fees and licensing, and a host of other taxation tools within the jurisdiction of municipalities.
Federal investment has been seen as a key to halting or reversing infrastructural decline. However, despite initial positives in this area, these transfers have been drying up as agreements expire and the federal government reallocates its funding priorities. Federal transfer agreements concerning the Building Canada Fund (BCF), HST rebate, and those concerning public transportation capital and affordable housing have all expired, leaving only the Permanent Gas Tax Fund in place. Speaking with a collective voice and inaugurating advocacy groups such as the FCM has gone some length in attempting to establish better intergovernmental relations between municipalities and the federal government, with some notable successes amidst some lagging support. However, as FCM membership continues to grow and speak collectively in advocating for communities large and small, this has resulted in demonstrable changes in federal policy. That being said, there is much more to do to improve the federal-municipal relationship given the economic, environmental, social, and demographic realities local governments face.
The delegation of responsibilities has always been a key component - and sometimes a source of contention - with respect to the jurisdictional powers of each level of government, in addition to attendant bodies under provincial mandate (such as school boards, various agencies, and commissions). We see here reflected in the FCM report the changing nature of which levels of government ought to take responsibility for certain services, and how these may be supported (sometimes through grants, policies, or partnerships). As local government is subordinate to the upper levels of government, an abrupt change in provincial policy can impact certain municipalities more than others, for good or ill. I can here provide four examples: 1. Changes in food security and safety policies enforced by the local health unit can hinder small local food growers and producers as requirements may be set at a level that is not financially feasible to support a locally sourced agricultural enterprise; 2. Some municipalities that operate as a single tier may have more affordable access to OPP services, whereas other municipalities may pay higher rates for police services. 3. The province’s Green Energy provisions for additional wind farms has been a contentious issue among many rural residents, some of whom claim either health issues or lowered property value as a result. Despite some vocal opposition, municipal governments are not in a position to change the provincial goal for erecting more wind turbines to generate more renewable energy. 4. Winter maintenance of arterial highways that come under provincial jurisdiction was shown to lack oversight, possibly resulting in more winter-related driving accidents. The Ministry of Transportation has since revised their public tender practices, but previously it was shown that contracts were issued to the lowest bidder, and very little oversight was maintained to ensure the successful contractor had sufficient capacity in vehicles or use of de-icing fluid. Why this can impact a municipality might be on account that, pending geographic placement, provincial highways are seen as an economic life line.
We may remark that, as municipal autonomy in adjusting taxation to levels that would better generate revenue are constrained by the province, it would seem that municipal governments are by circumstance returning to a model of governance attempted in the early 20th century, and thus ever more emphasis is placed on the administrative at the expense of the representative role of councils. Without additional revenue supports, or changes to the Municipal Act that would benefit municipalities, many councils are left with the prospect of budgets driving policy, instead of the other way around. When this occurs, civic engagement and having the flexibility to respond to shifting needs of a community suffers.
The fiscal imbalance still remains despite some minor improvements. Municipalities face unprecedented challenges, be it the rising costs of service delivery; skilled personnel shortage amidst a wave of retirements or souring relations between councils, management, and staff; immigration settlement patterns; perennial problems associated with rapid urbanization and development; crumbling infrastructure and forced deferment of repairs due to financial shortfalls; declining population in rural and sparsely populated municipalities; regressive property taxation laws; climate change; and the still enduring and occasionally fractious legacy of the Harris-era amalgamations.
I recently sat down with a councilor to discuss an entirely different issue, but we got talking about multi-year budgeting processes.
For those who might not be familiar with this practice, it is in effect a multi-year fiscal planning framework that has a lot to commend it. In many municipalities, budgets are a yearly ritual, and we find that a lot of staff resources get entangled in a lengthy process that seems to start over again just when it was just completed. Moreover, not everything a municipality does can fit ever so neatly within the budget cycle.
Most budgets are presented sometime around November to allow for any further modifications and alterations as needed, and the whole shebang goes into effect at the end of the fiscal year in March. I think it is pretty clear what the advantages can be in adopting a different budget cycle framework, but a few of them I can list here:
There are other benefits to adopting this kind of fiscal planning, and it does not have to mean that a budget devised in one year will be set in stone for the x number of years to come, but it ensures some degree of alignment between elected officials, staff, and the community in a way that gives a strategic plan the financial oomph derived from some degree of predictability.
This is a preliminary post on citizen engagement. A future post will cover aspects of how to engage in outreach that will include more members of a community.
There is perhaps nothing quicker to cure the average person’s insomnia than to engage them in a long discussion about municipal affairs. For a lot of people, their understanding of municipal government and the services provided is fairly slim to marginal, most likely escaping notice except when the property taxes go up or an essential service is suddenly not available. Also, given a recent spate of scandals in some municipalities, this resulted in what some may call a protest vote that introduced new faces on local councils. The “throw the bums out” vote is indeed a sign of life in citizen engagement, but what happens after that? And, how can we encourage more citizen engagement that need not just be about the negative?
There are strategies councils can adopt to increase citizen engagement and participation - the latter of which is key to sustaining or improving volunteerism. Some strategies work better than others. For example, posting notice of a public meeting is a good step to demonstrate an elected council’s transparency and accountability, but if it is a notice posted only on the municipality website, it may as well be announced from the bottom of the sea. Announcements of this kind should be made where people naturally congregate, and where they prefer to obtain their information. It isn’t a guarantee that everyone will be paying attention, but it has a much better chance of reaching more people. Some councils maintain a Facebook page and email lists to make good use of the digital communication venues. As some residents are not as digitally connected, it is necessary to supplement digital communication with paper copy notices in a mail-out.
But it cannot just be posting notices of meeting. Updates in general can be a good means of informing citizens of what council has been doing, and these should be prepared like a compelling narrative - not in the dry procedural language so common to Robert’s Rules of Order. Telling the story of what council has been doing, what it is currently considering, and what it plans to do is a good way to place issues at the forefront of people’s attention.
Communication works both ways. Simply broadcasting to the public is not enough. Soliciting input and participation on key issues that matter to residents is vital feedback. Inviting local experts to participate on council-created standing committees can also enrich expertise and understanding on key issues. In the changing landscape of municipalities, it is essential to make the public more part of the discussion, and in ways that are much more substantial than casting a ballot every four years.
There will always be residents who complain about taxes. That has always been since the invention of taxes, and will most likely always will be the case. Although it may not appease everyone, “explainers” may be useful here. A lot of people simply see a rate increase and do not fully understand why the increase was necessary. Showing how the increase was calculated should be tied to the real costs of the services residents use. For example, it could be partly because of a hockey arena many residents enjoy that is in dire need of renovations to be brought up to code, or a new zamboni is needed, or the cost of utilities is going up. It should be understood that costs increase to maintain the same level of service year after year. Facilities get worn out, machines break down, utility costs increase, and so does labour costs. It is much more dangerous for municipal government to hold to unrealistic campaign promises of zero tax increases since it simply kicks the can down the road, and some future council will have no choice but to raise taxes. In some cases, a slight tax increase to keep certain services, facilities, and equipment in working order is an ounce of prevention rather than a pound of cure (full replacement, for example, which may cost more than simply making repairs and adjustments). "Explainers" go some distance in appeasing "complainers."
And even an explainer does not make things so easy. Councils have an obligation to set priorities that benefit the maximum number of residents while deferring or declining to factor in some asks in the budget. However, an explainer can, indeed, explain the reasoning behind the sticker shock of a tax increase.
Public input on major decisions is vital to the process, and this is why a strategic plan as a blueprint for change ideally ought to solicit the input of the public. Strategic plans are necessary in informing the official plan, which can be considered the municipal mandate required by the province.
Citizen engagement is more than just electing representatives on council; however, some citizens may feel that there are barriers - real or perceived - that discourage them from participating and engaging. It is important to identify possible barriers and develop a strategy for removing them. Accessibility to public spaces where discussions are happening is a must, but so are the ways in which discussion unfolds - nothing fortifies a barrier and damages good will than to dismiss what a resident says, calling it unfeasible or silly. Obviously, being patronizing or monopolizing the conversation is a big no-no. There are going to be suggestions by the public that are, in fact, absolutely unfeasible for whatever reasons (provincial rules, budgetary constraints, bylaws, jurisdictional boundaries), but there is a way of informing the public in a diplomatic, polite, and fair way where the public’s input is considered valued - even if no action can be taken on the suggestion.
PUBLIC INPUT IS SACRED
Not only is public input an incredibly valuable asset politically, but it should also be treated with maximum respect and consideration. It is not always easy to get members of the public to talk about municipal issues for several reasons, such as lack of interest, lack of understanding, or real and perceived barriers. Once the public feels confident to speak up, any mistreatment of that trust is liable to losing that valuable input. Active listing is essential to the process, and that also means not foreclosing on possibilities.
ENGAGEMENT IS INTEREST
Once a multi-prong engagement strategy is in place for implementation, it is no secret that successful engagement has to focus on what the public is actually interested in. There are some fairly nuanced discussions about things that the general public have no understanding or interest in. The fine minutiae about manhole covers may not be the most “engaging” of topics. However, start talking about introducing or enhancing public transportation networks, extending walking trails, or renovating a community centre to meet new needs, and this will get people talking. Most people will respond actively when an issue is something they perceive to be of personal stake.
KEEP IT POSITIVE
There are times when public consultations can get off the rails, quickly becoming a clearinghouse of angry complaint. Some light facilitation can circumvent this by keeping the discussions positive. There is not much sense in dwelling on past actions that cannot be undone, or reopening old wounds to settle a score. Focus instead on the “go-forward basis.” Facilitation can include posing some guiding questions while keeping the discussion open-ended. For example, something like “I had a terrible experience with your staff trying to sever a piece of land,” this can be refocused into a question of “what can we do better, and how can we achieve it?” Finger-pointing is not constructive, and so statements such as “previous council failed to do x” or “we missed an opportunity a decade ago for the province to subsidize a ring road, and now look where we are” are not constructive go-forward statements.
I’ve recently been introduced to the NOW/LATER model of consultation and facilitation whereby stakeholders on council, management, staff, and the public can come to consensus on what the community ought to do now, and what it can reasonably put off until later. To give such meetings an additional sense of satisfaction for all involved, agreeing to timelines will be a source of reassurance. For every proposal for change there should be an ACTION and a TIMELINE for delivery. Having management and staff present for these discussions is important since they can speak directly to the feasibility of whatever is decided in the consultation, and recommend adjustments as befitting staffing and budgetary resources. It is also very important to limit the number of action items so as not to dilute focus, and being mindful that an elected council may not be able to achieve everything in a four year mandate.
WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE?
As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once remarked, “the people are missing.” In municipal matters this need not be the case. Inviting people to attend council meetings is a good step, but not the only one. Keep in mind that council meetings might occur at times that are inconvenient for the public, such as when they are at work. It is also not the most comfortable environment for some people to freely express themselves. The formal aspects of a council meeting can also make input feel like a non-event: an issue is raised by council, the public is invited to respond, and there is no response from council. There are much better and naturally fluid ways to have dialogue that a formal meeting cannot accommodate. For that reason, it is important for council members to reach out to their constituents and physically go to where the people naturally congregate, on their “home turf,” to so speak.
* A successful citizen engagement strategy should aim for the following statements to be true:
We are listening
What you say matters
We will keep the discussion going for as long as it takes
We will aim for consensus
Constructive change will result
Community interest is the top priority
One of the major challenges facing municipal governments is the decrease in highly qualified personnel that can enter municipal service to replace retiring staff. Although new programs at the university and college level do seem to produce a few more graduates, it remains to be seen if these skilled applicants will choose to settle in more remote or sparsely-populated regions, or if they will solely be knocking on the doors of the GTA. Moreover, we might ask if the number of graduates will be enough to satisfy succession planning initiatives. In this post, I will discuss an option that may seem to be a stopgap, but that ought to be implemented as a core strategy in every municipal administration. There are two takeaways of this post: (1) Investment in skills acquisition and networking opportunities for staff will eventually result in net benefit; and (2) Organizational development begins with staff development as the essential ingredient to operational excellence.
Scarce financial resources in the municipal context has meant staff are asked to do more with the same or less. At other times, where budgets allow, there might be up-front investment in equipment or software designed to improve productivity and efficiency, but existing staff may not have access to the resources to obtain the necessary training. It is no secret that adopting, say, a whole new records management software system may be a swell idea, but if the staff are not trained in it, its value is limited. In order to optimize the integration of new software and equipment, training is required. Simply throwing tools at people without adequate training is not likely to go very far. If we understand staff as a form of “soft asset,” then skills enhancement only improves upon the value of that asset.
It is not just software and equipment that changes over time, but practices and processes. There are those who specialize in designing innovative and more efficient ways of delivering services, just as there are those among staff who by trial and error come upon a better way of doing what they have always done. How do these innovations travel? How are they communicated? In what ways can they be better communicated across the entire municipal sector?
There is no doubt that senior management will generally have more opportunities to connect via conferences and retreats with their equivalents from other municipalities. There, they can learn new strategies for more effective management in their area, and compare notes on what does or does not work. Imagine, however, if we could extend something similar to staff, providing them with the means to acquire new skills, upgrade existing skills, and to network with their contemporaries.
There are three parts to this solution: skills acquisition/upgrading, networking, and cross-training. The first two have an external component, while the third can be done in-house.
* Skills Acquisition/Upgrading: There are a number of options to enhance the skill set of staff. These might include workshops provided by the supplier (for example, any workshop offered by the supplier of a new piece of software), or courses at the postsecondary level, be that college or university. In the latter case, the employer would effectively subsidize the staff member to attend school on a part-time basis while also maintaining their status and duties in the office. As there are increasingly more options for distance learning, this can be done at a more flexible pace.
* Networking: Just as management and other professionals see a benefit in connecting with others in their field, the same might prove a benefit for staff. As stated above, comparing notes on what does or does not work, sharing innovations, and developing rapport with one’s contemporaries can enhance the sense of pride in one’s role in addition to learning new ways to improve productivity.
* Cross-Training: A flexible, robust, and dynamic workplace should contain a commitment to a staffing philosophy whereby it can be responsive to the occasional absence or other contingency.
And this brings us to the role senior management can play in cultivating a training culture as part of staff and organizational development. I can break this out into smaller component parts as a guideline:
Role Benchmarking: As role assessment is generally done in cycles to evaluate each staff member’s job description, this can be bundled together with role benchmarking. This practice allows for better measurement that identifies what gaps exist between staff performance and optimal result. This should never be used to punish staff, but as the beginning of a conversation between management and staff to problem solve together. And that brings us to...
Staff Feedback Sessions: These can be done individually and in groups. In order to save time, skip the negative stuff everybody already knows, such as budget constraints and staffing shortages. In fact, it is a bad idea to lead with the budget as a motivation to simply “do better” or “more with less.” The budget may be used to trim or adjust expectations, but too often the talk of money forecloses other opportunities that may in fact be cost neutral or will deliver a stronger return on investment. The real focus of this exercise is to ask staff “what obstacles do you face?” and “what can we do to assist you in optimizing performance?” Tying that in with the prospect of providing training opportunities externally (courses, degrees) or internally (cross-training) may result in some positive uptake. As an added bonus, it demonstrates the leadership of management in being engaged with its staff on a collaborative level.
Individual Development Plan (IDPs): Optionally, coming out of these sessions, staff members might be invited to prepare a summary of development strategies that would both help them achieve their career goals, and that of operational excellence. These strategies should be within reasonable limits; i.e., not everyone requires an expensive MBA to perform their jobs, but it can only be of some benefit to assist an employee who works with the budget in their desire for an accounting designation.
Implementation: If the IDPs include a reasonable and achievable timeline for training goals, management is then tasked with an approval process for any continuing education or workshops the staff member has outlined. These timelines are critical to ensure that, if a staff member will require a reduced workload to pursue further studies, there is no interruption in service.
Supporting the training goals of staff comes with some risks, and this is beyond just the expenditure. Some managers may fear that enhancing the professionalization of their staff will make them more marketable, and thus there is always a small risk of experience-flight. That is, the staff member who realizes her or his value is higher and says, “thanks for the CGA! I’m resigning and taking up a new job that pays better in the municipality next door.” No manager wants their department to be viewed as simply a stepping stone to better work elsewhere, as that would not be a good return on investment locally (but it would benefit the municipal sector at large). But we should not exaggerate this risk, for if the staff member enjoys a good work environment and is committed to the community in which they live and work, it is more likely they will stay.
ROI may not be immediately evident, but it will show in the long term as departments become more productive and efficient as a result of training opportunities. A certain patience is required as cost savings will not materialize overnight.
What is truly risky is denying training opportunities to staff. Assuming all managers want to see their departments functioning at optimal levels, withholding investment in staff training is a lot like owning a home and never doing any repairs or improvements. Your staff can only achieve at the very top of the skills they possess.
Overtraining may also be a risk. Be sure that it is a voluntary training culture that is supported, not a mandatory training dictatorship! There are obviously situations where additional training is absolutely required, but in other cases it should simply be encouraged and supported.
There is no doubt that, for many municipalities, the provincial desire in the 1990s in returning to wholesale municipal restructuring (not seen since the regionalization and county restructuring initiatives of the 1960s and 70s) was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the appearance of inviting local design and solutions, much of the amalgamations were in the hands of the provincial government through its proxy commissioners. The “logic” behind these amalgamations was to streamline service delivery and achieve cost reductions by eliminating duplication, as well as downloading some of the more costly provincially provided services unto municipalities through what was then called the Local Services Realignment. The impact of increased roles and responsibilities was supposed to be offset by amalgamating municipalities into larger units that could afford to take on the added burden. Although today the current provincial government has made steps to upload some of these services, this does not prove sufficient to fully rectify the issues that came of amalgamation or reverse the damage that was done during the Harris “common sense revolution.” In fact, even if all the services downloaded on municipalities were to be uploaded by the province, the financial impact of LSRs would still be felt. It is like suddenly being obliged to make car payments on a car one cannot afford, and even if those payments are taken over by someone else, you’re still out the payments you made that could have gone to other spending priorities.
Bigger is Not Always Better
It is one thing when two groups unite voluntarily because cooperation and collaboration may provide stronger advantage, and quite another to be forced into unification for survival. The crisis was not of the municipal sector’s making - things were financially on relative even keel after the restructuring experiments of the previous decades. It is hard not to see the Harris Government’s move as anything more than a manufactured crisis, and a cheap way of balancing its budget at the expense of a lower tier of government. We see such off- and downloading in the current relationship between the federal and provincial government in terms of eliminating the escalator funding for healthcare, and instead tying it to indirect measures like GDP.
The amalgamations that resulted in what can be deemed a kind of shotgun wedding, created larger municipalities. However, despite what may appear to be a viable solution in going for economic strength through size, this would prove to have an impact on service volume, capacity, level, and quality.
Let’s remember that this provincial exercise where it showed its muscle, was not just some minor, cosmetic change: the number of municipalities decreased by nearly 50%. It not only left a lot of (now merged) municipal governments gasping for air as they took on additional service delivery roles, it also left a bad taste in the mouths of those who believe local governments should have much more autonomy to go along with any additional responsibility - this autonomy largely stripped down courtesy of provincial commissions. Between the new roles and an arduous property tax reform, this not only put a chill on local governments that they had to go about restructuring before the province imposed an uglier solution, but it also was prohibitively expensive - something that undercut the very rationale behind the amalgamation exercise. Transition costs alone would have pretty much eliminated any of the projected savings, and even the projections taken on their own merits without factoring in transition costs did not exactly pan out.
Moreover, the community impact (the so-called “soft” quality of any municipality) is still apparent today. This is not to say that the mergers created in every case a kind of snake and mongoose situation of competing interests and identities, but there are still cultural and community tensions that are tied to older municipal boundaries. For some living in a particular pre-amalgamation enclave, there is certainly a sense of pride in self-identifying with what constituted that enclave’s identity. The loss of autonomy through merger creates a host of problems at the level of perception and identity, with some communities accusing councils of favouring another community at their expense. In some cases, the merged communities have very different interests, goals, and values, some of which are tied to economic identity. For example, an agricultural community may balk at being hitched to a largely dormitory community of ex-urban retirees that embrace gentrification (and, speaking of agri-communities, that is an area that I will address in a future post regarding decline and the need for creative diversification).
So, in sum, what were the previous markers of identity and “place-making” has to be rewritten, almost from scratch or modified substantially to accommodate the new amalgamated arrangement. This can result in an inter-municipal struggle as each community will seek to preserve its unique identity, but also to assert its “dominance.” Such struggles are usually expressed informally in conversation and attitude as residents of a community will say negative things about the other community; and formally through elected representatives on council who may be pressured to fight for the community specifically as opposed to governing for the whole municipality. Such arrangements make it so that each community in the merger sees the other as “alien,” and perhaps as receiving more benefit, or being of a lesser value.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that the restructuring and amalgamation exercise is classic neoliberalism applied. The downloading of responsibility and risk with a proportional loss of power and autonomy is emblematic of the neoliberal modus operandi. The provincial Tories perhaps convinced themselves this was a necessary move, beguiled by the apparent projected cost savings, but those savings came at the expense of a major buck-pass, and even though some of those downloaded services have since been uploaded by the Liberals, it is more akin to an egg: once it is broken, you can’t un-break it. For several years, municipal governments were carrying the load of many provincial services, to the tune of billions. That money is gone.
It is very unlikely that we will ever see a province-wide push for de-amalgamation. Although current trends do not suggest there is much appetite to go through a similar process again, there is also no provincial support for turning back the clock. And nor should there be if only because the process would entail spending a great deal of money undoing all the hard work municipal governments have done in trying to make the amalgamated communities work.
For better or worse, we are all stuck together. However, this can be a moment in which we can shine. There's a very real opportunity being seized by some local governments to redefine and promote a new identity that actually preserves the traditions of the former communities to create more dynamic and diverse identity. There will always be complaints that revolve around perceptions that some other community in the merged municipality is taking on more of the tax burden and receiving less services, but we need to step away from the tax questions and identify what truly distinguishes these new, pluralist community identities. And it is happening - not because, but in spite of, amalgamation.
There has been some chatter in a few circles about revisiting the amalgamation question and pushing it further. Talk of "super-counties" or the elimination of the tier system has been floated. That may possibly be fine if all we really want out of our local government is a large, centralized administrative bureaucracy that has a larger service area, but the wheels fall off the bus of that idea if people actually want effective representative government. Let's always remember the problems that arose when we started cutting down the number of school boards that now have larger areas to administer, or the bureaucratic entanglements of vast intermunicipal boards and agencies (largely only answerable to the province in some cases if they are created by statute). In a future post, I'll explore this question of creating super-counties as really just old wine in new bottles.