Municipal Election 2010

Some Counsel for Council

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:

  1. We won't play at the West Harbour. Ever! (Scott Mitchell, Ticats)
  2. I hope cooler heads prevail. (Dalton McGuinty, Premier)
  3. It's a local decision, and we will honour that decision. (Sophia Aggelonitis, Ted McMeekin, Liberal MPP's)
  4. We're pulling the funding. (Sophia Aggelonitis, Liberal MPP)
  5. The funding has been restored. (Sophia Aggelonitis, Liberal MPP)
  6. The Whitehead/Jackson Flip and Flop. (Councillors Tom Jackson and Terry Whitehead)
  7. Let's bet on the McMaster Innovation Park failing and use half its land for a stadium. (Councillors Lloyd Ferguson and Russ Powers)

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.

Listen to each other.

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.

Listen to guest speakers.

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.

Do your homework.

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.

Take formal breaks.

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.

Stop thanking everybody who ever touched the file.

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.

Stop the 'Through you Mr. Mayor'.

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?

Try to make the Councillor-to-Councillor deal-making a little less obvious.

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.

Remember the vision, the whole vision and nothing but the vision.

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.

Always put Hamilton first and your Ward a close second.

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.

Stop enjoying the sound of your own voice.

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.

Ban the word "prudent" from all Council meetings.

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.

When staff don't actually, or fully, answer your question, ask it again.

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!

Stop repeating yourselves.

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.

Make citizens feel welcome in their City Hall.

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.

The Mayor is the Mayor, and you're not.

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.

Graham Crawford was raised in Hamilton, moving to Toronto in 1980 where he spent 25 years as the owner of a successful management consulting firm that he sold in 2000. He retired and moved back to Hamilton in 2005 and became involved in heritage and neighbourhood issues. He opened Hamilton HIStory + HERitage on James North in 2007, a multi-media exhibition space (aka a storefront museum) celebrating the lives of the men and women who have helped to shape the City of Hamilton.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 10:48:25

Excellent. Most of these are my pet peeves as well. I didn't have the actual examples because I was watching while at work on a little window but enough is enough. Time to elect people to are responsible and act like more than children.

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By rayfullerton (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 10:51:26

Great synopsis article. I agree with your observation regarding the lack of proper business conduct at all meetings in the Council chambers. In the business world such behaviours would not be tolerated!

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By JoeyColeman (registered) - website | Posted September 08, 2010 at 11:09:28

I write this as a citizen.

Graham,

Thank you for writing this, attending both meetings, and being engaged in the process.

I agree with your point about taking a formal break. If Councillors feel they need a break, then citizens watching (and media running a live video stream) could use one too.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 11:11:39

I could not agree more Graham, well done! I only hope all those running this year take a good read through this article.

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By Sarah Virginia (anonymous) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 11:13:56

Graham, thanks for this article. Have you considered running for office in Ward 2?!

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted September 08, 2010 at 11:46:07

Sarah Virginia,

Thanks for the kind question. The quick, and definitive answer, is no.

However, I'm doing whatever I can to support Martinus Geleynse, a young and very bright candidate in Ward 2 who is wise beyond his years. For those who can vote for him, please consider doing so. For those who live in another Ward, you can still check out his site at www.martinus.ca

Interesting times ahead.

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By realfreeenterpriser (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 12:10:37

At the risk of being too frank, I frankly wish they'd ban the use of the term "frankly", "quite frankly" and "to be frank" in the Council chamber. Frankly, I've heard Terry Whitehead (and, frankly, countless others) begin far too many tedious, long-winded, self-promoting, ward-healing, insomnia-curing monologues with "quite frankly". It begs the question, how the hell long would the verbal inertia have lasted if it was just "frankly" and not "quite frankly"?

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 16:12:40

STOP USING MY NAME IN VAIN!!! ;)

Comment edited by frank on 2010-09-08 15:12:56

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By Ernest (anonymous) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 17:35:23

I feel your pain, brother.

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By Thanks for Clarifying (anonymous) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 18:00:19

Thanks for clarifying. Once again either the Mayor or his staff have forgotten or they're lying. You said in your article above:

"During a recent meeting, Terry Whitehead and Russ Powers tried to pass a motion to have the Mayor removed from the negotiating team."

The Hamilton Spectator said:
"Immediately after city councillors ratified the west harbour location for the Pan Am stadium yesterday, a motion was put forward that would have seen Eisenberger excluded from crucial Pan Am talks."

And yesterday Fred and his campaign said:
"Larry Di Ianni alleges council moved a motion to remove the Mayor from stadium negotiations. Fact Check: No such motion was moved and no such motion was passed."

Thanks Raise the Hammer for exposing the truth...while Fred and his campaign try to bury it.

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By jan brewer (anonymous) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 18:20:58

This is how real politician roll:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b65i1IXHkwE&feature=related

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 18:36:24

Great article.

It is reprehensible that councillors choose to not only ignore, but rudely ignore speakers who have something to contribute to the discussion.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted September 08, 2010 at 19:26:06

As I have already been in touch today with Graham regarding the passing along of kudos, I'll refrain from revealing more of my toady side. (But I did link to the post on my blog, I was so impressed...)

I will add something here that's not entirely self-serving. A good deal of what I've been producing over at My Stoney Creek has to do with addressing the end result of a system that I'm not convinced is productive, or for that matter, either humane or graceful. Graham has taken to task this end result, but my approach is from the other side, from the resident/voter side, with an examination of trying to create a greater 'relationship of engagement' between 'us' and our Councillors.

Two things: Firstly, Editor Ryan is directly responsible for my mania about this noodling; he offered up an answer to a question I posed him about six weeks ago regarding how to choose a good candidate. Now, his answer will, he tells me, form the basis of an editorial at some point. Suffice it to say that he inspired me to run with what I'm currently running with, so I am deeply indebted to him.

Secondly, this morning I sent out an email to both him and Cal DiFalco of 'The Hamiltonian', an invitation to put their massive brains together with mine (not massive, but it does get me into trouble, so at the least, it's effective. To a point.) and take a look at how to migrate to a culture where civic engagement is more the default than abject apathy.

Here's the invite-post: http://mystoneycreek.blogspot.com/2010/0...

And here's a followup from later today, courtesy of Mahesh Butani, who has also played his part in getting me to continue to examine this 'cause' with a sustained vigour: http://mystoneycreek.blogspot.com/2010/0...

Thanks again to Graham for providing me further impetus...just as unexpectedly, and just as effectively.

P.S. Anyone have any bets as to how any of the 15 Councillors would respond? Funny how this is the closest anything's come -that I've seen, anyway- to a 'performance review' of Council for this term...

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By kevin (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 20:05:27

Graham; great read. Although I didn't have high expectations, the behaviour you describe is mind bottling. Thanks for keeping an eye on things; there's nothing like first-hand knowledge. Please, keep us posted on City Hall shenanigans. It's fascinating, and, hopefully, it has a positive affect.

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By TheLastStraw (anonymous) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 21:53:51

Graham, I’ve been to numerous COW/Council meetings - your observations/assessments are right on the money (unfortunately). Well written as usual. I hope your letter inspires all to get out and cast their vote for change.

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By Tony (anonymous) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 03:52:24

There's nothing to stop you from running for council. Get elected and you can show them all how it's supposed to be done.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 09, 2010 at 06:11:48

There's nothing to stop you from running for council.

There are lots of ways for citizens to engage in the political process, and running for elected office is just one of them. This idea that you have to be a politician to critique politicians is corrosive to democratic participation.

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By Decorum (anonymous) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 08:45:23

Ryan, true there are many ways to engage and criticizing elected officials is one of them....but it is a pretty safe, almost cowardly (if done anonymously) kind of engagement. At least Graham, Ryan, Jason and just a few others here have the courage to identify themselves. That is appreciated by those of us (er...them) who are elected.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 09, 2010 at 08:58:48

Just yesterday I came across an interesting historical perspective on anonymous commenting. Anonymous and pseudonymous commentary has a long, noble tradition and an invaluable role in democratic discourse.

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By Sarah Virginia (anonymous) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 10:19:12

I think one of Graham's points deserves further exploration: making City Hall more "user friendly." In the overflow seating at August COW meeting,I had lots of difficulty following the debate. The building has some heritage restrictions, but I don't see why a screen couldn't be mounted in the overflow area/hallway so that people can see what's happening inside without entering Council Chambers. (or even a feed into the one that's already mounted) Or an agenda taped/mounted on the wall. Similarly, I hear that difficulties experienced by The Spec with the live streaming are due to an inadequate feed in the Council Chambers. Why wasn't this remedied with the renovation?! Why was there no citizen committee to work on ensuring that these kinds of changes were made? Can we believe that City Council doesn't have an interest in having members of the public know what's going on in Council meetings?! Perhaps RHT could do a piece containing suggestions for making City Hall more accessible, including bike racks out front.

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By Andrea (registered) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 10:47:34

If I recall correctly, the Mayor had made a comment and he thought there was a screen in the overflow area. I would imagine that this is something they may accomodate should future meetings be so well attended.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted September 09, 2010 at 12:36:28

There's nothing to stop you from running for council. Get elected and you can show them all how it's supposed to be done.

There's plenty of things stopping us from running for office, and even more that would stand in the way of us winning. How many people in this city realistically have the free time and money to stand a chance at winning? I have no doubt that there's a good 20 people at least on RTH who could clean house at any all-candidates debate, but few of us would fare well in the spectator.

This argument is 100% cop-out. It is not our fault that our politicians are inept and our institutions ineffectual.

Politicians like to paint this as an issue of apathy and resentment, but these are legitimate questions and critiques. Every single point Graham brings up is a serious constructive criticism. People despise politicians because politicians almost as a rule act in ways we can't stand. This isn't because we're ignorant, it's because they're failing at their jobs, at our expense.

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By chefs (anonymous) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 17:27:42

Excelent article, someone "Graham" who is actually paying attention. Knows what hes talking about and articulates it beautifully. Someone suggested you run for council. Don't we would not want you to become tainted, stay outside the box.

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By NortheastWind (registered) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 20:49:42

You hit the nail on the head with every item. I have been thinking many of these things for years. Too bad we can't vote for the entire council.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted September 10, 2010 at 22:54:53

Ryan:

"Just yesterday I came across an interesting historical perspective on anonymous commenting. Anonymous and pseudonymous commentary has a long, noble tradition and an invaluable role in democratic discourse."

Indeed. We have a primary example, adjacent to this own country's beating heart of democracy, free speech and a free press. It was Joseph Howe's seditious libel trial in 1835 that established the notion of a free press in Canada within our legal system (and that of the British Empire). That trial emerged from the publication of an anonymous letter in Howe's paper The Novascotian accusing the local politicians and powers-that-be of corruption. The right to publish anonymously is crucially subsumed within our basic freedoms.

And remember it is to that same Joe Howe, 13 years later, that the foundation stone of our Canadian democracy (the notion of responsible government) is due.

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By kevin (registered) | Posted September 11, 2010 at 08:44:31

Awesome, Tybalt. I tell everyone, if you can't smarter reading RTH, you can't get smarter.

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