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Who Gets Involved in Local Government Decision-Making? Part 2

A few days ago, a colleague sent me a link to an online article entitled New Watchdog Organization Aims to Eliminate ‘Municipal Madness’ across Ontario and Canada. You can read the article for yourself here.


The article suggests that a “clown car of scandals” is occurring in local government in Ontario and beyond. The group behind the article goes on to list off various alleged and real transgressions that have occurred in the political arm of local governments.


Most of the examples purport to show entitlement, frivolous spending, secrecy, political interference and the like. While there is certainly some truth to what has occurred, groups like this often suggest that ‘common sense’ is the way to go. In these cases, common sense just means people who agree with their stance on the topic of the day. In reality, once the layers of the onion have been peeled back, it’s quite likely that there is no fire where there has been the impression of smoke.


There are two related principles that I use that come to bear on topics like this. The first is ‘it’s never about what it’s about’, and the other is ‘where you stand depends on where you sit’. Let’s deal with those in reverse order.


Local government officials, like all of us, must abide by the codified rules found in laws, bylaws, policies, and the like. They must understand those rules, and they must internalize them. They must also hold their colleagues to account as well. For government to function well - to be predictable and transparent, the rules must be commonly known and universally available.


One of the common points of alleged malfeasance is in the area of how local government does things in secret. This action is true, but there is a reason for the ‘secrecy’. Freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation requires local government to do some things in private, like negotiate the city manager’s salary or determine the value of a piece of land that is to be put up for public sale. Very few people would think it appropriate or wise to do either of those things in public, so the veil of ‘secrecy’ is completely in alignment with the desire for good government.


How this aligns with the ‘where you stand depends on where you sit’ principle is that local government officials, whether elected or appointed, may well be following the law, but the local watchdog may perceive that as doing public business in secret. Without a common understanding, issues like this arise.


This is not to say that there aren’t cases where the principle is ignored. There certainly are cases of local government councils behaving badly, and they should be called out for it. That said, the cases we hear about reflect only a minute portion of the thousands of local governments across Canada that quietly go about providing the programs and services that people need and want.


The second principle that I outlined earlier is ‘it’s never about what it’s about’. There’s a chapter on this topic in my book Who’s Driving the Grader and Other Governance Questions. What appears on the surface to be the case may, in fact, not be the case. The self-appointed watchdogs, or the ‘coffee shop senate’ as I’ve called them, see the result of an action through their own lens. What they perceive may be correct, or it may be the result of their collectively reinforced opinions. We can go back to the ‘secrecy’ issue, for examples. The watchdog may see ‘secrecy’, but when that onion gets peeled, the core is that the council is following the law by closing a meeting to the public or negotiating a contract behind closed doors.


Local government is the most transparent order of government, and that’s a double-edged sword. Whereas we expect federal and provincial or territorial governments to do most of their business around a caucus or cabinet table, we expect councils to transact their business in public. The expectations are fundamentally different. There is a legitimate role for oversight, whether from the media, from individual citizens, or by groups who have an interest in seeing their communities run as well as possible.


When those oversight groups go overboard, or when the specific media outlet is really just a self-appointed political opinion, then things can go too far. In this space, citizens are not well served in the long run.


If you’re an elected official, an administrator, or just someone who believes in their community who is reading this post, what do you see in your own municipality in terms of watchdogs who keep an eye on local government?


As always, you can reach me at ian@strategicsteps.ca.

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