Ron Born is sterling, both in coif and experience. With decades of service in local government under his belt, the man retired two and a half years ago, discarding actual governance for consulting on governance.
And so Squamish’s new council was recently privy to his insight during a session on municipal machinations. They covered a lot of ground, everything from the roles of staff to the ethics of power. Of all the topics discussed, the most involved was the approach to committees, which Mayor Greg Gardner has said is important for the district’s new governance model.
But Born is no fan of the committee approach. In his view, a municipality need only have an audit committee.
“I just think that if you’ve got some particular problem, if you have staff write up the report, all of council sees it and you can address the issue as a whole.”
A committee, continued Born, can too easily atrophy. When regular meetings are expected, agendas can be drawn up either in haste or frivolity, simply because councillors are expected to arrive — and so they do. In the absence of a thoughtful agenda, or any agenda at all, the conversation becomes almost informal, and thus not as constructive as it could be. All talk and no action, if you will. Further, even if a committee is productive, its powers are limited and its findings are still subject to votes from council as a whole.
Scrap the committees, suggested Born, and go for task forces. They don’t exist in perpetuity, and they’re by nature struck with particulars in mind.
That didn’t go over well with Councillor Corinne Lonsdale. She said Squamish council is regularly besieged by massive agendas with equally enormous reading packages, and digesting all the material in a responsible manner is nearly impossible. Take the transportation plan, for example.
“Now, if you had a committee,” she said, “I would feel really confident that at least three councillors have read that transportation plan and have done all their homework.”
Perhaps, said Born, but what of a task force struck to deal specifically with the transportation plan, as opposed to a committee dealing generally with operations and only occasionally with the plan?
Effective governance is all about priorities, and Councillor Doug Race suggested assigning priorities to a committee.
“You could,” said Born. “But if you’re setting up priorities, you have to do it as a whole, and you may need a separate committee of the whole to deal with that.”
On the issue of priorities, Gardner has a list of topics for potential committees. He’s been holding those cards close to his chest, but, during and since the election campaign, has said any new committee system would deal with core municipal issues.
In the end, neither task force nor committee carried the day, though Councillor Patricia Heintzman leaned towards the task force model. Still, this was just a consultation session, just the first of a few introductory learning modules for the new council.
“You have to make it work for you,” said Born. “Think of (council) as a personality, rather than just seven individuals.”