May 26th, 2024

Letter: Governance structure and process is in your hands, council

By Letter to the Editor on May 7, 2024.

Dear council members Clark, Dumanowski, Hider, Hirsch, Knodel, McGrogan, Robins, Sharps and Van Dyke,

As a former executive officer with the city and Speaker of the Alberta Legislature I respectfully submit that the current divisions greatly affecting our city may in part be about personalities, but more the governance structure and process. Only you can fix that. Past and recent council structural decisions have created a governance process where elected officials’ authority has become constrained. The system has produced a culture that has consequently undermined public confidence in representative democracy.

Freedom of speech is a sacred principle of democracy. In our Parliament, our legislatures and council chambers, vigorous debate and pointed questioning, although not always pretty, are real evidence that freedom of speech is alive. Transparency of the process is critical to maintaining public confidence. Freedom of speech gives each elected person the right to ask. Indeed, as elected representatives, every member has the responsibility to ask.

In closed door caucus or city council meetings, information is shared privately and members may be in conflict about the policy options. That internal conflict ought not, and cannot, limit the right to ask questions in public forums. Because the public is not aware of those closed meetings, they are not in a position to judge. Information provides the knowledge necessary to understand. As an illustration of this principle, a provincial Justice recently ruled on a provincial matter before the court that:

“Cabinet confidence is essential to ensure that the government can deliberate freely, but it does not exist to allow governing in secret.”

These Canadian parliamentary principles apply to all levels of government including debates on resolutions and bylaws in municipal government. The current premier recently underlined that point when she said the municipalities are “creations of the provinces.”

At the municipal level the erosion of elected representatives’ authorities to delegate authority to one public servant has increasingly created a corporate culture of two separate silos. One, an executive officer with subordinate staff and the other, elected representatives. The culture of elected officials relying upon the advice and working closely with subordinate staff has deteriorated in this silo model.

The once significant role of a strong committee system with chairpersons similar to that of a minister in government has been weakened. Ministers are not required to go through the chief deputy minister to obtain information from their departmental deputy minister.

Many well intentioned and capable elected officials have become confined by this culture of separation. The simplistic mantra of limiting elected officials to ‘the what’ and the executive to ‘the how’ and to believe that council has only “one employee” has gone too far and is flawed. Local government is more than a corporate board of directors who meet quarterly. Delegation is not abdication.

So long as the systemic problem is accepted, public confidence in the institution itself is at risk. I suggest that the city’s once core value of ‘self determination’ requires all of you, rather than the courts, to resolve current differences. Resolution is not about always about winning or losing, it is about getting an agreement.

I believe each of you care, as do I. Each of us must ask, what individual and collective responsibility do we have to remedy these troubling circumstances, recover public confidence and bring our community together?

Respectfully,

Robert (Bob) E. Wanner

Medicine Hat

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