An Ethics Commissioner will help, but the City must get back to the business of governance as opposed to petty politics.
By Bob Robertson
Published July 07, 2008
The recent establishment of an Ethics Commissioner in the City of Hamilton is a welcome announcement. One certainty is that this post will be very well used by the City.
I had the privilege of working for the City of Hamilton during the period 2002 to 2004 as the City Manager. Although widely counseled to avoid what has been described as the most dysfunctional local government organization in Canada, I personally do not regret my decision to accept the post.
However, Hamilton has some very unique challenges and it is important for the future of the City that these issues be addressed. Unfortunately, the reasons the key issues are not addressed means that the Ethics Commissioner will be busy, particularly if Hamilton holds true to form.
Fundamentally, the challenges include political dysfunction and staff organization.
Leadership to address this issue has been weak to non-existent. Both Former Mayor Bob Wade and the current Mayor cannot go it alone in addressing what is clearly a council issue. Perhaps the Ethics Commissioner can help to keep the elected officials on track, but there is a consistent history of failure in this key area. On the council side, the city operates as a loose federation as opposed to a real elected council operating for all the citizens. As a result of parochial ward interests, it is difficult to advance a city wide agenda of value to the whole city.
A recent example is the Commonwealth Games debacle. Hamilton was the Canadian domestic bid city for the 2010 Commonwealth Games but lost to Delhi.
Mayor Larry Di Ianni was advised that a full debriefing was required to carefully consider the results and establish reasons for the loss.
One reason was the use of a two-stadium model, which for some voting delegates appeared to diminish the world class nature of the event.
Another issue was the proposed location of the stadium. Although the site was not specifically selected, council advocated a brownfield site in the centre of the city. This brownfield model and using the Games as a part of an urban regeneration scheme had been very successful in Manchester home of the 2002 Games.
Unfortunately, some councillors in Hamilton wanted a greenfield site and they were quite happy to lobby voting delegates for a site of this nature. The division was not helpful in the final vote nor going forward to the unsuccessful bid for the 2014 Games.
It would have been instructive to have a full public debriefing of the unsuccessful bid; however Mayor Di Ianni declined this option. The Games afforded an opportunity to access considerable federal and provincial government financial support. These funds were to be directed to facilities in dire need of upgrading including Ivor Wynn Stadium.
The loss of the Games bid means that these facilities remain in dire need of a funding plan to renovate key components of the City.
Of course, another well-known area of political dysfunction was the hiring by Mayor Di Ianni of his campaign manager Larry Russell. This patronage appointment was advanced without regard to City hiring policies for consultants and over the objections of the City Manager of the day. These types of decisions continue to bring the City into disrepute.
Another evident area of dysfunction is the painful budget exercise conducted by council annually. This exercise in futility has a number of common elements. First, Council consistently blames the staff for the sorry state of the budget. Second, budget overruns are an annual event. Finally, budget shortfalls are always the fault of the Province.
The facts are somewhat different. For example, budget numbers in Hamilton are notoriously late in being available for review. Council needs better information with options in a timelier manner.
Also, during my tenure, Council stated they wanted a business plan approach to consider options to assess all expenditures. However, in practice, Council promptly gave up on this idea. All programs go forward year to year with little or no review and they simply get bigger (and more expensive) every year.
For this reason, Hamilton has one of the highest municipal tax rates in Ontario - with no end to tax increases in sight. Fundamentally, on the expense side Council is not interested in any changes whatsoever.
Equally important, infrastructure in Hamilton drastically needs more capital but council seems disinclined even to address the issue. Budget meetings are normally poorly attended and frequently there is little in constructive debate on any budget issue.
Combined, the issues of consistently rising costs and looming big ticket infrastructure are very important to the future of Hamilton and they cannot be ignored any longer.
Another area of concern is the position of Executive Assistant to the Mayor. This post is political in nature, appointed solely by the Mayor. The incumbent must realize though that he or she is an employee of the City, subject to the rules and procedures of the duly elected Council.
For example, this individual cannot simply engage consultants outside the scope of council approved policies. The role of the post needs careful re-examination and it must be subject to the Ethics Commissioner review.
Hamilton has a history of being the economic engine of Canada. However, in recent years it has seen this reputation tarnished and its future remains very challenged. Leadership is important to address the issue and timing is crucial. Continued delay makes the matter worse.
Simply, Council must resolve some of their systemic problems and deal with the real issues before them. The addition of an Ethics Commissioner will help, but the bottom line is that the City must get back to the business of governance as opposed to petty politics.
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