March 23rd, 2018

How are municipal decisions made?

By Gillian Slade on October 14, 2017. 

Recent public transit issues have raised questions on how decisions are made at city hall and by council.

The primary legwork on a new initiative is done by the city’s administration, which is more familiar with municipal requirements, and staff present it to council for a political point of view, said Jim Groom, political science instructor at Medicine Hat College.

“One of the downfalls of the system is that you are in the hands of the bureaucracy to a large extent,” said Groom. “You really are trusting the administration to make sure that they have done their homework.”

To some extent council also relies on the filter of a decision item going through the committee process before being recommended, he said.

Darren Hirsch, a former councillor and candidate in this municipal election, says you have to have a level of “trust that the methodology and work performed by administration can withstand scrutiny.”

“Sadly, I witnessed many of my fellow peers acknowledging the work administration did, and consequently, supported the recommendation,” said Hirsch. “A dangerous move, as witnessed with the transit boondoggle.”

For this story the News sent an email to all council and mayoral candidates with this question: “How do you think council should handle a new proposal before giving consent or not?” They were given about 18 hours in which to respond. None of the incumbent candidates responded and five of the new candidates did not respond either.

Hugh English, candidate for council, says it is the responsibility of councillors to be adequately prepared and to scrutinize proposals before approving them.

Background information should reach councillors at least a week before a meeting instead of just a few days, said candidate Michael Klassen. This would give council an opportunity to study and receive local input.

“Both the council and staff are on the same team but the focus is different,” said candidate Immanuel Moritz. “Council works for the citizens, staff for the city. It is council’s role to ensure that the citizen’s voice is heard in any decision.”

“City staff, I think, can tend to be a little bit myopic. They are focusing on their needs and their desires and their interests a little bit,” said Groom, who also suggests it can be intimidating for a councillor to tell administration they have made a critical error.

“With something as crucial as transit, which I consider an essential service, they should be verifying how administrators came to that conclusion,” said mayoral candidate Thomas Fougere. “They should be making sure the advice was given with sound research.”

“Trust but verify,” said Hirsch.

Scott Raible, also a mayoral candidate, says questions and time for research is crucial before giving consent. Short-term and long-term impact has to be looked at with potential consequences investigated and considered.

“Any and all major decisions must be presented to the public before consent from city council is given,” said council candidate Ryan Regnier.

Public consultation and with those who will be impacted by the decision is key, said Raible.

The city often asks for public input and typically provides three options for people to choose from, said Groom. Without giving options it would be almost impossible to collate people’s ideas. One of the possible downfalls of this system is that the results can be presented as what the public wants when it may not be accurate. Many people may have chosen “none of the above” if given that option, said Groom.

Time is needed to scrutinize and consult with the public, said candidate Myles Mulholland. Closed meetings, while sometimes required, do nothing but aid the perception that council is rushing decisions, he says.

“If it is a serious change to people’s lives, (i.e. transit) the individuals affected need to be consulted in a manner that they are aware of … and can provide input,” said candidate Charles Turner.

We should consider implementing a practice adopted by the provincial government, said candidate Kris Samraj.

“The cabinet has to review and approve all public consultation and engagement plans before an initiative is launched,” said Samraj, who believes this aligns politicians with the administrative approach so there are no surprises.

Council also needs to communicate the pros and cons of each decision very clearly, said Samraj.

“The people of Medicine Hat understand the need for tough decisions, but they also know the difference between a tough decision and a poor decision,” said Raible.

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