Committee of the Whole 101

Much ado has been made lately in the press about Council’s Committee of the Whole (CoW).  Opinion within Council is divided — some love it, some hate it — but most of the public don’t even understand it.  Here’s the low-down:

Any council or board normally has some kind of committee structure.  The purpose of a committee is to review and debate items before they come to Council.   Then, the committee makes a recommendation to send to Council for a final vote.

Having a committee review, debate and make a recommendation before going to Council is a good idea. Stakeholders and citizens can come and share their input before Council makes a decision.  Like anything, the background work done well at committee makes it easier down the road.

Guelph used to have a Standing Committee structure.  There were five (5) committees, as follows:

  • Infrastructure, Development and Enterprise (such as roads,sidewalks, water, business Development and downtown renewal)
  • Public Services (such as tourism, recreation, emergency services, transit, etc.)
  • Corporate Services (such as human resources, finance, legal,  city-owned real estate)
  • Audit (make sure money is being spent as planned)
  • Governance (strategic planning, accountability, transparency, CAO review)

In the old standing committee structure, four councillors (and the mayor) sat on each committee.  Meetings were scheduled at standardized times and, typically once per month.  At the end of the month, all of the committee recommendations are presented to Council and ratified.

In the Committee of the Whole structure, all of these committees meet on the same day, one after the other, and all 12 councillors (and the mayor) are members of all the committees.

On the surface, it appears simple.   Proponents say it is more efficient because there is only one meeting, instead of five meetings.  Technically, this is true.  However, so far, CoW meetings have been longer than all five previous standing committee meetings put together.   This is because all 13 members of Council are present, which tends to mean more questions of staff and longer debate.

A CoW governance structure can often work well for small boards or councils.  Larger councils get bogged down in discussion and debate, and this is why larger councils tend to do most of their work using a standing committee structure.

When the CoW structure was first proposed for Guelph, I did not support this new model.  I have been consistent in my opposition, up to and including the Council meeting on May 23, 2017, where I voted against continuing with the pilot project.  Council voted to continue to evaluate the CoW process for another six months, so this is the plan moving forward.  I do not think it is a good move for Guelph, for the following reasons:

  • longer committee meetings
  • repetitive discussion
  • false sense that committee recommendation will pass at council
  • not as accessible for constituents to attend daytime committee meetings
  • councillors can’t focus on one area, must attend all meetings

It remains to be seen whether the CoW will continue beyond the spring of 2018.  As we move forward, if the CoW structure is to remain, we need to see evidence that our citizens understand and feel included in the decision-making of the city at the committee level.  As always, I welcome your thoughts…

LP

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National Planning Conference: Learning how to build a great city

Last week, I had the privilege to attend the 2017 National Planning Conference (NPC).   Each year, city councillors are allocated budget funds for professional development which can be used to attend courses, conferences and/or other learning activities related to our role as members of Council.  Each year, I try to choose something different, based on the needs and challenges facing our city.  Over the past few years, as we grow ever upward and outward, I took the opportunity to learn more about how cities like Guelph are doing things differently from a planner’s perspective.

During the second day, I was sitting with a small group of planners and was asked “why is a city councillor at a planning conference?”   My response, “we are your partners in city building. We need to speak the same language.”  In other words, when our city planners bring us ideas and recommendations, it is essential that we, as decision-makers, understand their vision and the lens through which they see our city.   We have more in common than we realize.

Cities across North America are facing similar challenges:

  • how do we build resiliency in the face of climate change?
  • how do we rebuild our aging infrastructure for sustainable and alternative energy?
  • how do we encourage active transportation and improve transit ridership?
  • what are the current best practices in developing and redeveloping public space?
  • what types of public space best contribute to social interaction?
  • how does public space generate and contribute to economic prosperity?
  • how do we provide affordable housing when we gentrify our downtowns?

The NPC provided some great innovative ideas and inspiration.  Over the next few days, I will reflect on what I’ve learned and share it here, with a bit of added Guelph context.

The Value of Public Space

When planners look at a new development, the need for quality public space is always top of mind.   The social interactions and economic benefit of high-quality public spaces (streets, parks, trails, squares, boulevards, libraries, recreational facilities, etc.) are, in many ways, more important that the private portion of the development.  Public space is the glue that holds it all together.

Humans like to gather in public places.  If we provide the basic essentials, the people will do the rest.  What are the essentials?

  • places to sit (ie. benches)
  • places to eat (ie. food cart)
  • places to reflect (ie. greenspace)
  • places to work (ie. wifi)
  • places to look (ie. public art)

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Bryant Park (NYC) is a great example of all five components working in tandem.  It’s also one of the most highly-used public spaces in New York City.   Once a neglected urban space plagued by drug deals and other criminal activity, Bryant Park is now a hum of activity for all ages and an economic driver for businesses located on its perimeter.   It is located adjacent to the New York Library, so outdoor reading areas and free lending libraries have been added to promote literacy. Games (bocce, ping pong, chess to name a few) keep visitors engaged for hours.   Loose park furniture (yes, even in a big city) allows for visitors to shift with the sun and find shade under a tree, alone or in large groups that can congregate and talk about local politics.

In Guelph, our next significant public (and private) space development will happen along the river lands on the site of The Metalworks.  The opportunity to link our rivers and trails is something that our planners (and councillors) were really excited about when we saw early plans for the massive redevelopment of the 5 Arthur Street site.  The city will play a role in planning for a bridge linkage over the Speed River, and connecting the future “river walk” with our existing trail infrastructure.   At NPC, we heard about successful projects where riverfront lands were reclaimed and restored for public space.

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Planning a great city — and great public space — must always engage the community. Build in layers.  Keep intact what our citizens currently value in our public spaces, and build upon that.  Add amenities here and there. Test ideas and innovations.  Adapt and evolve.  Watch how people interact.  And then adapt and evolve again.

LCP

 

 

2nd Annual Spring Festival at the Food Forest

2nd Annual Spring Festival at the Food Forest

2nd Annual Spring Festival at the Food Forest
University Village Park – 91 Ironwood Rd
Sunday May, 21st
9am to Noon

The Guelph Community Food Forest and Hanlon Creek Neighbourhood Group are excited to host the 2nd Annual Spring Festival. Help with the garden, lots of mulch to spread, crafts and activities (make a kite, plant some seeds, make a bird feeder), yummy refreshments, more park Clean-Up. Bubble Soccer hosted by the Rotary Club of Fergus-Elora – $5 for kid (up to 14), $10 for adults. Family fun for all ages, a great community event and time enjoying the outdoors!