On the eve of the 2010 election, here 15 simple and personal suggestions that Council could follow to ensure more productive meetings and more representative governance.
By Graham Crawford
Published September 08, 2010
As I write this, the stadium debate lingers like a bad smell over the city. Seven times the wind has delivered fresh air as Council reconfirmed its support for the West Harbour site. Eight times the stink returned soon after the last vote was cast.
We have come to know each wave of stink by its own title:
Sadly, I've left out a few. Quite a few in fact.
As I write this, I have no idea where it will end - although I must admit it feels as if the flash in the Pan Am may be just that.
But this article isn't about the stadium debate, though the debate inspired it. Having watched and participated, having been overjoyed and depressed and frustrated through this appalling train wreck of a process, and having watched Councillors and other participants behave like heroes and villains, I thought it time to provide some counsel to Council.
Here's a set of simple thoughts, observations, and suggestions Councillors may wish to consider, no matter how many of the current lot get re-elected in October.
There are 15 suggestions, one for each member of Council. They're in no particular order. Although the examples I cite all come from stadium debates, the counsel is, in my opinion, relevant to any Council meeting, regardless of topic or time.
Leave the BlackBerry on the desk in front of you, or in your pocket. Probably turned off. When your colleagues speak, they're speaking on behalf of the people who elected them. Whether you think they are wise or witless, give them the courtesy of your attention.
If you're craving a can of pop from the Councillors' Lounge, wait. If you're dying to share an opinion with the Councillor next to you, save it for later.
Just because the camera doesn't catch you not paying attention is no reason to behave so selfishly and unprofessionally. If you think this kind of behaviour is tolerated in business, you've never been to a business meeting. Trust me. I've been to thousands.
If you just can't bring yourself to embrace the first suggestion, at least listen to the people who have taken time out of their schedules to come and present information to the City of Hamilton. It's called professional courtesy. I mention this because it seems that too many Councillors missed the workshop on courteous meeting behaviour.
At a recent COW meeting, Councillor Whitehead left his own seat and sat beside Councillor Jackson as Chris Murray, our City Manager, introduced Robert Abboud, President of Forum Development Corporation.
The two of them talked to each other throughout Mr. Abboud's entire presentation about an opportunity to co-venture with the City on an iconic building in the West Harbour. They did not hear a single word of Mr. Abboud's presentation. Not. A. Single. Word.
Classy, Terry and Tom. Very classy indeed.
Actually read and try to comprehend the documentation that has been provided to you prior to the meeting. I realize there's a lot to read, but it comes with the territory. Doing so would ensure you don't ask questions or make recommendations that are already contained in the documentation sitting in front of you.
Councillor Whitehead did this at a recent COW meeting where Councillor Ferguson, seconded by Councillor Powers, put forth a motion to consider the McMaster Innovation Park. It had to be pointed out to Councillor Whitehead by his colleagues that the text he wanted to add to the motion was already in the motion.
Perhaps he was too busy talking to Councillor Jackson to prepare for the meeting.
Don't simply walk out whenever you feel like it. Even if the media are just begging for a comment, citizens pay for your undivided attention and participation in matters important to the entire city. Let the media wait. They will. They need you to report a story. Stop leaving when the media email you or catch your eye through the glass doors.
Not only that, but it seems to me that some Councillors leave when a Councillor they don't like, or with whom they're mad for some infantile reason, starts to speak - just to be dismissive. It's childish.
Feedback is nice, but why don't you do it face to face and not just on television? I'm not saying don't be gracious, but what comes across as so much pandering when the Cable 14 cameras are rolling is really quite unbearable. Why don't you tell whomever it is you think is fabulous how fabulous they are to his or her face?
When people work hard, when they meet a deadline, when they provide advice, they're doing the jobs they're paid to do. Send them a card. Drop by their office. Send an email. Send chocolates. Save the over-the-top flattery for another venue.
When something superhuman is done, by all means say so, but having every Councillor thank the same people for the same work at the same meeting is tiresome, and I'm a feedback kind of guy.
I get why it's done and where it comes from, but please. Enough. It's annoying and wastes time. If we truly behaved as if we understood and embraced Robert's Rules, I might feel differently, but these 15 suggestions suggest that Councillors don't. Not by a long shot.
Save the silly little procedural gesture. Couldn't we agree to have the first speaker say it once, and then just ask our questions directly?
Getting up and walking over to a fellow Councillor while the debate is ongoing smacks of deal-making. I don't care who it is, or why they're doing it, it's inappropriate behaviour in my opinion.
If you read the agenda and attachments prior to the meeting, you should not have to do this in front of your colleagues and any citizen who is present since you would already have done the deal making prior to the meeting.
I've written about the City of Hamilton's four-part strategic vision recently in H Magazine. "To be the best place in Canada to raise a child, promote innovation, engage citizens, provide diverse economic opportunities." Please Councillors, memorize it. Internalize it. Believe it. Use it.
Doing so might focus not only your decision making, but also your comments as you debate the issues. This approach might help Councillor Merulla, for example, when he tells us once again what we shouldn't be doing, but almost never offers visionary commentary on what we should be doing.
Sam, it's good you focus on the little things, but its time you tried to help us see the bigger picture. That is, if you can see it yourself.
Unfortunately, televised Council meetings translate into showtime for too many Councillors. As a result, they often talk only as a Ward Councillor, and not as a member of the senior executive team of the City of Hamilton. Dave Mitchell is guilty of this Ward-centric myopia. So too is Margaret McCarthy.
Some think beyond their Ward boundaries. Councillors Maria Pearson and Robert Pasuta come to mind as remarkable examples of people who chose to rise about the pettiness of Ward politics when they articulated their support for the West Harbour. Personally, I found their commentary to be both refreshing and inspiring. Well done. Thank you.
If you have nothing to say, say nothing. If your colleagues have already mentioned the points you were going to make, say so and shut up!
By the way, the new technology that was installed during the renovation of City Hall was supposed to limit your mike time to five minutes. It has not. Simply pushing the button again turns your mike back on, something all of our Councillors quickly figured out.
I understand that during complex debates, you may need more than the five minutes allotted to make a complex point, but let's all try to work to the time limit. Stop wandering. Stop pandering. Stop thanking everybody who touched the file. Get to the point. The worst offenders are Whitehead, Merulla, Jackson, in that order.
The worst offenders are Whitehead, Jackson, Merulla, in that order. But they're not alone. The way they wrung their hands and cried over the potential loss of the Ticats, a $17 million gross revenue company, was anything but prudent, but that didn't stop some Councillors from using the word as they defended their flip-flopping over which site would make the Ticats happy. Indeed, talk is cheap even if it isn't prudent.
The act of asking is not the measure of success. It's the act of getting a useful answer that should be measured.
At the recent emergency COW meeting, Councillor McHattie asked the City's CFO Rob Rossini about total economic impact/contribution of the Ticats. Rossini told Council he couldn't remember the number and didn't have it with him in his files. Really? Why? What did he think Council would be talking about.
Even I could remember the number. It appeared in the Spectator a few weeks earlier. What did Mr. Rossini do? He turned and looked over his shoulder in to the crowd and caught the eye of someone whom I assume was the Ticats CFO and mouthed, "What's the number?". Nice touch.
Councillor McHattie never got his answer. Problem is, that was the end of it.
The number, by the way, is between $60 and $70 million, at least according to the Ticats, who, according to Councillor Pearson, have not provided Councillors with any back numbers for their positions, including the suspect, "We'll lose $7 million a year if we have to play in the West Harbour." Not to mention the, "Bob Young has lost $30 million so far since he bought the Ticats."
Councillors not only have a right to ask, they have a responsibility to ask. And to get the answers!
Once is enough. Once says you know what you're talking about. Repeating yourself says you're not prepared. It says you're rambling. It says you're making it up as you go along. Make the point and turn off your mike.
Sweat the details folks on behalf of the people who elected you and who pay you. At the last three meetings of COW/Council, there was a not unexpectedly large crowd of people who showed up to watch democracy in action. The weather was warm. The Chambers were crowded - overflowing, in fact. Nobody thought to provide citizens with even a glass of water.
The brainiacs removed the water fountains during the renovation and the new taps in the washrooms blend hot and cold so that you can't drink it. How about a couple of water dispensers with paper cups during such sessions?
Councillors get water. So does staff. Terry Whitehead seemingly gets an unlimited supply of cans of pop which he loudly snaps open during debates.
Also, how about not installing one of the useless kiosks Council voted to spend money on in the lobby, and instead installing a monitor in the overflow section so citizens can see democracy in action, rather than just hear it? I know we have the technology for both water and video.
No matter who the Mayor is, and no matter what you think of him or her, remember the Mayor is the only elected official for whom every citizen in Hamilton got a chance to vote. Only the people in your Ward voted for you. Do not try to remove the Mayor from the business they were elected to do by and on behalf of all of the citizens of Hamilton.
During a recent meeting, Terry Whitehead and Russ Powers tried to pass a motion to have the Mayor removed from the negotiating team. As if he was the problem! How about passing a motion to get Bob Young back to the table? But no, it's Fred's fault that the Ticats behaved like petulant children.
Not only that, but there are reports of a conference call, without the Mayor of course, where Councillors tried to convince other Councillors to deep six Fred. Appalling. Absolutely appalling. As if their behaviour was above reproach.
If Fred is guilty of anything, it's having the intelligence to establish and communicate, over and over, a set of well-considered city building criteria developed to ensure Hamiltonians came first, and which he applied to all potential sites.
The West Harbour site was the only site that ticked all of the boxes. The only criteria the mutinous Councillors seemed to be using was what would make Bob Young the most money so he would agree to keep playing football in Hamilton - and citizens be damned.
Get real, folks. You should be ashamed you even tried to do the dirty on the Mayor.
Obviously, some of these suggestions are just personal gripes. I'm not apologizing for that fact. But some are bigger and more significant. All are worth taking a moment to consider.
If the saying is true that it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks, then we've got our work cut out for us related to these 15 suggestions, since some of these Councillors have been sitting around a Council table longer than some voters have been alive.
Happy election everybody. Please vote on October 25. Who knows, it might make a difference.