Friday, April 22, 2011

Springwater Council after the Honeymoon

The Springwater councillors have now been exposed to the numerous training and orientation sessions pertaining to the various activities that they were elected to oversee. Most are doing well and I would say only one councillor appears to be struggling with reading the many reports prior to the meetings. The reason for this observation is the questions from this councillor typically make no reference to the reports provided and normally come from left field. Being a councillor takes at least twenty hours of week if not more. I am sure the councillor can adjust over time.

On a positive note, for the most part the Councillors are doing their homework and challenging the things they should, especially in matters where hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent. The new councillors challenge and question the reports with good questions in a very respectful manner. There is a tendency for the returning members of council and the new deputy mayor to lean toward what staff thinks is right rather than engaging in the debate and moving the township forward. Springwater has a competent staff and provide good input, but the direction must come from the elected officials which is starting to happen.

One example from the April 18th council is the discussion on the request for a new fire truck for close to a quarter of a million dollars. The existing truck is about 20 years old has 45,000 km and according to the chief can be put back into top operating shape for about $5,000 and might last another 4 years. Councillors Hanna, Webster, McConkey and Ritchie all asked appropriate questions that were not really answered. The threat of an unsubstantiated increase in residential insurance rates and the possibility of losing a special deal swayed the McConkey and Ritchie vote with only Hanna and Webster seeking a deferral of the resolution until more information was brought forward. The motion to purchase the $238,000 vehicle was supported by all members of council except Hanna and Webster. First of all the age of the trucks is only one part of the weighting factors for changing the fire insurance protection rating of a municipality. Proximity, number of firefighters and training have more impact on rates than the trucks. The second point that this was a special deal is baseless. Every specialty equipment manufacturer’s orders have been down for the last 3 years. To retain key staff and keep operating the companies are building a variety of products on speculation and if this deal goes by, I can assure you there is a better one not far down the road. A proper report of the actual insurance rating impact should have been received before approving the purchase. I feel the council prematurely approved a huge expenditure which may have been delayed a few years reducing our tax bill without compromising the safety and security of the residents.

The good news is that the second request for a new snowplow truck, again just shy of a quarter of a million dollars, was deferred with a good scenario presented by Councillor Webster where he challenged public works to rethink the way they have historically done their plow routes. This is why we have councilors to represent our interests. Kudos to Webster for his idea. That doesn’t mean it will work but the fact that it is being considered is positive.

The most detailed and thorough report, with no missing gaps, was from Ron Belcourt the Director of Recreation. I know Ron knows where all the bodies are buried in Springwater but his complete analysis of the cost of township supplied lawn maintenance versus subcontracting is one of the best reports I have seen presented to council in the last 5 years. I took some of his numbers, and I have done a lot of this analysis in my career, and I was within a few dollars of his calculations. If every manager provided information as Ron did, the council meetings would be easy. I am sure we will see more reports like that from the key staff, as it makes a councillor much more confident in their decision making.

I am still dissatisfied with the lip service given to public transparency at the council meetings, which all candidates promised to institute during the election. Providing a time at the end of the council meetings after the adjournment is not transparency. There is no requirement for the comments to be recorded in any official minutes. The public comment and question session should be a limited time within the actual council meeting, not outside of the meeting.

Even though it may surprise some, I disagree with the fact that council did not include themselves in the modified salary increases as somewhere down the road there will be a huge adjustment. The two tiered percentage increase system council adopted for this year is creative and allows the lower salaried groups who have been most hard hit with HST and gas increases a little more income, while limiting the increases at the higher income levels where it is not felt as much. I also do not agree with a total cutoff of the provided food for long meetings for either staff or councillors working into the evening hours after spending a good part of the day in meetings.

But enough of that. The good news is that this is a fairly cohesive and dynamic council with many differing positions which is quite healthy and adds to the dialogue and debate. Gone is the groupthink mentality of the last three councils. Bullying would not bode well with this group I can assure you. The mayor even though frustrated at times, because of the many questions, allows the members to speak and has been able to keep control which is a feat in itself. This council is being cautious of spending which is a good lesson for all levels of government.

So far so good would be my assessment.