December 24, 2014

Committees need more specific tasks

As published in The Erin Advocate

Councillors divided up their duties in the Town’s committee system at their meeting last week, but they did not deal with a key problem – the system is not working well and needs an overhaul.

One year ago, I reported that committees were in need of new members, but not much has changed. At that time, CAO Kathryn Ironmonger suggested council provide committees with more specific projects to help focus their efforts. She’s given the same good advice to the new council.

Economic Development is only now being restarted after being disbanded more than two years ago. The Environmental Advisory Committee and the Recreation and Culture committees don’t have enough members to operate effectively. There is still useful work being done in some areas, but it could be much better.

It’s the right time for reform, with a new council in place and the Operational Review analyzing the efficiency of Town activities.

Jay Mowat and Liz Armstrong of Transition Erin appeared as a delegation to council on December 16 to suggest a new Citizen’s Committee on Alternative and Renewable Energy. Any time citizens enthusiastically offer to do free work for the Town, council should find a way to take them up on it – but only if they believe the work is really needed and are prepared to give the results some serious consideration.

Councillor Rob Smith pointed out there would be an overlap of interests between this new committee and the Environmental committee. Mowat said Environmental already has many duties, and it would be “too onerous” to add the energy analysis task.

The problem is that the existing committee has a lofty, wide-ranging mandate that sounds wonderful, but in fact, members have ben frustrated by the lack of useful tasks and simply given up after years of being largely ignored by council.

Maybe we don’t need so many committees where members are expected to serve continuously for several years. Committees should not be a window dressing, an attempt to make it look like citizens are being consulted.

Maybe the Energy Committee should be one of several ad-hoc committees – similar to the one that studied issues surrounding the Hillsburgh mill pond.

They had several meetings, and between the meetings they did research. They wrote a report, gave their information and opinions to council, and they were done.

Committee members are not elected, just interested, and their advice should never be binding on the elected council. The politicians already get plenty of advice on how to govern the Town from citizens, businesses, lobby groups and their own staff.

Committee work could be seen as volunteer service to help Town staff with their jobs, doing tasks that don’t require professional qualifications, but for which staff do not have time. This requires some supervision.

Tasks can include organizing and staffing events, gathering and analyzing information, finding out what options are in the marketplace and how other Towns handle similar issues. Shorter term commitments and limited, well-defined projects will yield more participation.

Here are the new assignments for councillors: Matt Sammut on Recreation, Culture and Trails and representative at East Wellington Community Services; Jeff Duncan on Heritage, Let’s Get Hillsburgh Growing, Committee of Adjustment and Property Standards; Rob Smith on Community Oriented Policing and the Business Improvement Area; and John Brennan on the Ballinafad Community Centre board and the Erin representative with Hills of Headwaters Tourism and the Wellington County Municipal Economic Development Group.

John Brennan was also appointed as the Erin member on the Credit Valley Conservation Board of Directors, a posting normally occupied by the mayor. Brennan has recent experience on the Grand River Conservation board, but their territory is so large that small municipalities have to take turns on the board.

For the coming term, Erin’s interests there will be represented by Chris White, Mayor of Guelph-Eramosa.