This is a guest post by Anthony Humphreys, a father of two daughters who lives in South Etobicoke and is a Toronto cycling advocate. Anthony attended the City of Toronto Executive Committee meeting on Wed, April 20th concerning the elimination of 21 citizen advisory committees.
From my perspective, yesterday’s Executive Committee meeting went “Not well”.
Over forty people signed up to make deputations, but because they dealt with us very last (starting at or near 6:00pm), only about 33 people or so remained to the end to speak for their five minutes.
Of those, two or three people spoke about the aboriginal committee, tenants committee, and bring back the don committee; there was also one each to defend the French Language and the Solid Waste committee. The rest were there to speak about the cycling and/or pedestrian committees; which was at least half of the speakers. More people spoke about the cycling committee specifically than any other committee. (I am so proud of our cycling community!)
In the end, the Executive Committee really seemed like they did not want to hear us (Did putting us off to the end not give it away?). With a few exceptions, the majority of the interactions were with Councillors who are not on the committee (like Shelly Carol, Adam Vaughan, Mike Layton, & Pam McConnell) and in the end the committee voted in favour of the recommendations.
We lost here, but we still have two weeks to make a difference…
Because I’ve been a regular attendee (but never on the committee formally) I can attest to why the committees are unpopular with citizens, staff and councillors. On the other hand, I’m not such an Idealist that I’ll heavily defend the committee like this.
In my own deputation I agreed that the committee structure was far too formal, intimidating, and required citizens to learn the procedures and terminology.In addition, there is still limited interaction (ie deputations) for the public with the committees. However, I want to recognize that this rigid formality is also the strength of the committee. If a presentation is made by a citizen or group and report is presented to the committee then staff are obliged to respond in kind, that is with their own report. This is why I why I went to defend the committee.
However, I did offer a middle ground; I did offer a compromise solution. I suggested that the committee be scaled back to meet only a few times per year, say four — or even twice — a year (rather than the 10 or 11 times they traditionally met). And I suggested that the council keep this for a couple of years, or perhaps this term of council. This would give everyone (council, staff and citizens) time to assess the true value of the committees against the other means of engagement that staff are planning in lieu of having the committees. Staff would engage using social media, town halls, etc, and the committees would still exist, but at a much scaled back level.
I know from experience that many of the public consultation meetings don’t work; they become shouting matches between those who want keep the status quo against those who want the proposed changes. At these meetings, no compromise is possible, and no one is forced to look for a solution. Town halls can offer some good ideas, but there’s no obligation to follow-through. On-line Social-media is limited, and can lack many of the subtleties of face to face interaction. Committees, on the other hand, are forced to work for solutions, they need to find reasonable compromises. And these committees also act as a type of watch-dog on over our City Council, at least within the scope of their mandate.
But they do have a cost in staff time in direct proportion to their frequency of meetings. Which is why I offered the compromise that I did. Keep the cycling committee, but have it meet much less frequently. Give all of us (Council members, staff, as well as citizens) a period of time to wean off the committees, especially if the intention is to kill them eventually. Let this become more of an evolutionary change than and abrupt change so we can all be sure that we are not throwing out the baby with bath water, give us all confidence that we are not losing too much when the time comes to kill the committee entirely. Provide us with time and a means to transition to new ways of doing things. This is what I am asking for, and I hope you will ask your councillors for something like this as well.
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