Commentary

Ethics and the City of Hamilton: A Retrospective

An Ethics Commissioner will help, but the City must get back to the business of governance as opposed to petty politics.

By Bob Robertson
Published July 07, 2008

The recent establishment of an Ethics Commissioner in the City of Hamilton is a welcome announcement. One certainty is that this post will be very well used by the City.

I had the privilege of working for the City of Hamilton during the period 2002 to 2004 as the City Manager. Although widely counseled to avoid what has been described as the most dysfunctional local government organization in Canada, I personally do not regret my decision to accept the post.

However, Hamilton has some very unique challenges and it is important for the future of the City that these issues be addressed. Unfortunately, the reasons the key issues are not addressed means that the Ethics Commissioner will be busy, particularly if Hamilton holds true to form.

Fundamentally, the challenges include political dysfunction and staff organization.

Political Dysfunction

Leadership to address this issue has been weak to non-existent. Both Former Mayor Bob Wade and the current Mayor cannot go it alone in addressing what is clearly a council issue. Perhaps the Ethics Commissioner can help to keep the elected officials on track, but there is a consistent history of failure in this key area. On the council side, the city operates as a loose federation as opposed to a real elected council operating for all the citizens. As a result of parochial ward interests, it is difficult to advance a city wide agenda of value to the whole city.

Case Study: Commonwealth Games Bid

A recent example is the Commonwealth Games debacle. Hamilton was the Canadian domestic bid city for the 2010 Commonwealth Games but lost to Delhi.

Mayor Larry Di Ianni was advised that a full debriefing was required to carefully consider the results and establish reasons for the loss.

One reason was the use of a two-stadium model, which for some voting delegates appeared to diminish the world class nature of the event.

Another issue was the proposed location of the stadium. Although the site was not specifically selected, council advocated a brownfield site in the centre of the city. This brownfield model and using the Games as a part of an urban regeneration scheme had been very successful in Manchester home of the 2002 Games.

Unfortunately, some councillors in Hamilton wanted a greenfield site and they were quite happy to lobby voting delegates for a site of this nature. The division was not helpful in the final vote nor going forward to the unsuccessful bid for the 2014 Games.

It would have been instructive to have a full public debriefing of the unsuccessful bid; however Mayor Di Ianni declined this option. The Games afforded an opportunity to access considerable federal and provincial government financial support. These funds were to be directed to facilities in dire need of upgrading including Ivor Wynn Stadium.

The loss of the Games bid means that these facilities remain in dire need of a funding plan to renovate key components of the City.

Of course, another well-known area of political dysfunction was the hiring by Mayor Di Ianni of his campaign manager Larry Russell. This patronage appointment was advanced without regard to City hiring policies for consultants and over the objections of the City Manager of the day. These types of decisions continue to bring the City into disrepute.

Budgetary Dysfunction

Another evident area of dysfunction is the painful budget exercise conducted by council annually. This exercise in futility has a number of common elements. First, Council consistently blames the staff for the sorry state of the budget. Second, budget overruns are an annual event. Finally, budget shortfalls are always the fault of the Province.

The facts are somewhat different. For example, budget numbers in Hamilton are notoriously late in being available for review. Council needs better information with options in a timelier manner.

Also, during my tenure, Council stated they wanted a business plan approach to consider options to assess all expenditures. However, in practice, Council promptly gave up on this idea. All programs go forward year to year with little or no review and they simply get bigger (and more expensive) every year.

For this reason, Hamilton has one of the highest municipal tax rates in Ontario - with no end to tax increases in sight. Fundamentally, on the expense side Council is not interested in any changes whatsoever.

Equally important, infrastructure in Hamilton drastically needs more capital but council seems disinclined even to address the issue. Budget meetings are normally poorly attended and frequently there is little in constructive debate on any budget issue.

Combined, the issues of consistently rising costs and looming big ticket infrastructure are very important to the future of Hamilton and they cannot be ignored any longer.

Organization

Another area of concern is the position of Executive Assistant to the Mayor. This post is political in nature, appointed solely by the Mayor. The incumbent must realize though that he or she is an employee of the City, subject to the rules and procedures of the duly elected Council.

For example, this individual cannot simply engage consultants outside the scope of council approved policies. The role of the post needs careful re-examination and it must be subject to the Ethics Commissioner review.

Summary

Hamilton has a history of being the economic engine of Canada. However, in recent years it has seen this reputation tarnished and its future remains very challenged. Leadership is important to address the issue and timing is crucial. Continued delay makes the matter worse.

Simply, Council must resolve some of their systemic problems and deal with the real issues before them. The addition of an Ethics Commissioner will help, but the bottom line is that the City must get back to the business of governance as opposed to petty politics.

Bob Robertson, Ph.D. is a consultant and professor of international business. He was the City Manager for the City of Hamilton from 2002 to 2004.

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By markwhittle (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2008 at 08:38:29

Not only that, present city manager Glen Peace is leaving his post and a replacement has yet to be found.

Good luck with that daunting task.

I also know someone who won't be accepting the Integrity Commissioners post, one Andre Marin, Ontario's Ombudsman.

According to his communications chief, ex Toronto Sun staffer Linda Williamson, Mr. Marin is quite happy in his present role.

Too bad because Andre Marin would be a star candidate for the job given his watch dog role as Ontario's Ombudsman.

What about approaching ex Police Chief Kenneth D. Robertson for the position of Hamilton's first Integrity Commissioner?

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By lost canon (anonymous) | Posted July 10, 2008 at 14:06:08

Great article. Its interesting to see a concise look behind the curtains of city. Its also disheartening. I've gone to a bunch a City Council meetings and been frustrated by councilors and the mayor's behaviour. Their collective decision making is as sophisticated as a five year old. The information brought to them by staff and concultants is of such poor quality, I think a highschool student could do a better job.

As I sat in these meetings I always wondered how this was possible. What kinda of insolated twight zone were they operating in. Now I kind of get it.

Not a good one in the bunch. Too bad everyone in this city doesnt go to meetings and get this info.

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By w willy (registered) | Posted July 21, 2008 at 10:06:44

Very interesting, although I didn't catch the part about "staff organization" beyond the idea that a thorough review of city programmes is needed as part of the budgetary process. It would be nice to hear more from Mr. Robertson about concrete places to look... obviously, as a gentleman, he will not want to be too open about it, but a bit of detail would be helpful.

I do wonder if part of the issue with council vision is the fact that the big picture planning processes seem overly politicized. I participated in several of the GRIDS public meetings and hearings, and it was clear that a certain vision of development (and a specific project) had been pre-selected, regardless of what the public and organized interests had to say. In this context, the mayor and the city's senior bureaucrats have a legitimacy deficit in trying to push their project, because there is no broad public buy-in. In addition, since some councillors seem to have had their pet development projects favoured in the big plan, the other councillors come to feel that their pet projects should also get their day.

Of course, we could also blame the Spec. Its coverage of city planning is pretty well missing in action, so citizens cannot hold councillors to account. THe paper also does not call on the expert opinions of planners who might likewise shame petty councillors. If one compares the Ottawa Citizen's coverage of the 20/20 strategy with the Spectator's coverage of GRIDS, the discrepancy is clear. NIcole McIntyre does a good job, but the View's CATCH update regularly eats the Spec's lunch in asking difficult questions.

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By Tidbit (anonymous) | Posted July 22, 2008 at 00:15:12

"Of course, we could also blame the Spec. Its coverage of city planning is pretty well missing in action, so citizens cannot hold councillors to account."

I still remember CHCH director Mike Katrycz and Spec manager Jim Polling at the AGH media discussion saying, "We don't do process". How the hell can citizens "do democracy" if the media don't "do process"?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 22, 2008 at 09:02:00

"How the hell can citizens "do democracy" if the media don't "do process"?"

Hey Ryan, I think I've found next month's 'Quote of the Issue'. :-)

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By CityJoe (anonymous) | Posted July 23, 2008 at 21:48:20

In order to get transparency you have to want it.

(Good luck with that. Old habits die hard. Hamilton politics seems to thrive on the lack of it. They clearly will not want it.)

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 24, 2008 at 09:25:39

CATCH is filling the void, but of course they're demonized for it. And as we've often seen on this site, any citizens who bother to show up to a public meeting are immediately marginalized as hippies and weirdos and told that they're not "regular" people because as we all know, "regular" people don't show up to meetings! You can't win.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted August 30, 2008 at 18:36:32

Thanks for the info., Highwater. Re: "Hippies, weidos & not regular people". I'm glad that you mentioned that, & you don't really have to even show up at City Councel meetings to get those labels. All you have to do is be aware, & read a little & speak your mind.

The last 'Hippie' was shot in Banff Ntn. Park in 1972 by park rangers for stealing a "Picinic basket", & yelling, "Hey hey, Boo Boo" to an accomplice. :-) (However, rumours persist of mutant Beatniks & 'Bolshevikies' living in our antiquated sewer system. It's possible that The City started the rumours to avoid fixing the sewers.)

'Weirdos'-? Yes that's what you get called for minding your own business. (your City & your taxes are your business) I wish there were more 'wierdos' in Hamilton.

"Not regular people?" I would suspect that these people in attendence are quite 'regular' as opposed to mentally & quite possibly physically constipated people. Some areas of Hamilton do seem to have a perpetual 'stick up the butt' complex & elect like-butted people.

One thing I'd like to know is do City Councillors actually call you this in a public meeting, Highwater? Or do this just start grinding out rumours on the local rumour mill?

(If City Councillors don't want the public in the public gallery, perhaps they'd be happier removing themselves from City Hall, & having their meetings at the party room in Micky Dee's? Sell City Hall to the developers!)

(Wouldn't this be an appropriate place for an ethics chair to start investigating?! If voters are actively discouraged from & insulted because of attending City Council Meetings then Something Is Very Very Unsavory!)

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