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Friday 4 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 1

Can you name your municipal councillors? Better yet do you even know if you have a municipal council? Maybe you have a Local Service District committee, or you may not have any form of local community government at all. I would be willing to lay a significant wager that 80% of people in the province can't answer those questions. Unfortunately the misunderstanding of the local government sector in NL extends far beyond the basic structure and participants. Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) is currently holding its annual convention so I thought it might be nice to delve into the municipal sector for a quick view into a complex and fragile system that many of us rely upon for basic services.

What does a councillor do anyway?
Being a councillor in NL can be a very different experience depending on what council you serve on. Some councillors are very dedicated and they spend incredible amounts of time and effort attempting to make their community a better place to live. Unfortunately many people don't see that side of the system. All some people see is that the road isn't plowed, the garbage truck is late, municipal taxes keep going up and my water isn't fit to drink. Councillors are responsible for those things, but the responsibilities don't end there. They can also be responsible for economic development, strategic and land use planning, recreation, community infrastructure, supporting volunteer groups, community pride and cohesiveness, as well as youth and senior community programs. Some councillors or mayors even actually maintain the drinking water or sewer system. And just like any group of people there are those who are dedicated to serving the community, and there are those who are seat fillers.

Lifelong Learning
With a significant list of responsibilities for municipal councillors, it would be obvious to assume that there is significant training available and even required. Not exactly. There are various training opportunities through MNL, PMA (Professional Municipal Administrators) and through an entity called the Municipal Training and Development Corporation or MTDC. So what's the problem? For starters none of the training is mandatory. None. This means that there are councillors in NL who are making decisions around significant budgets, infrastructure, planning, and possibly water systems without one minute of training. Other provinces have mandatory new councillor training and Nova Scotia holds a two day orientation for newly elected councillors. Here in NL the Department of Municipal affairs provides an hour and a half of training at the MNL convention just following the general municipal election for those who feel like going. If you don't feel like going then you miss out on training regarding municipal legislation, basic decision making, municipal responsibilities, budgeting, and conflict of interest regulations. In addition the MTDC doesn't actually develop or provide training, but instead provides a financial assistance program to help cover travel costs to these non-mandatory training sessions.

But isn't that your responsibility?
Just like many businesses, it is the frontline staff that often keep the lights on and the wheels turning, and in the municipal sector there is no doubt that the whole system would grind to a screeching halt were it not for the municipal administrators. But lets bring a little perspective to the table. If we pull out the top 10 municipalities by population, how many permanent staff would you guess the average municipality has? 4? 2? No. Municipalities with a population under 5000 have an average of 1 full time permanent staff person. 1. That one person is responsible to administer all the business of the council. This includes running the office, budgeting, actioning council directions, collection taxes, ensuring services are delivered and lets not forget; dealing with resident complaints. And again training is minimal and largely not mandatory. And because of the lack of capacity there are municipalities where the one staff person administers council business, picks up the garbage, plows the road and fixes the sewer breaks. It's no part time job.

Planning to Fail
At least there are specific planning requirements to keep us all on the straight and narrow right? Not even close. When it comes to financial planning municipalities are required to submit their annual budget before December 31 for the following year. Not exactly long term planning. The other point regarding finances is that the only requirement for municipal budgets is that they balance on paper. The results at the end of the year often look very little like the budget submitted 12 months prior. Then there's general strategic planning. You know the kind. All organizations are required to have them and they usually include mission statements and goals and actions and that kind of thing. Municipalities are required to have an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP) but only as of last year and only because it was a requirement for a federal funding program. Unfortunately the ICSPs were largely treated as a box to check and not a serious opportunity to plan for the future. Finally we have Land Use Plans, the ones that delineate residential and commercial zones, and development regulations. These plans must be developed and modified by professional certified planners and approved by Municipal Affairs. So are they mandatory? No. Do many towns actually have them? About half. Do many municipalities have certified planners on staff to work on these plans? Only 6 or 7 municipalities in the entire province have a planner on staff.

So we have councillors and staff who are trying their best but likely not appropriately trained in a sector that is largely misunderstood by the majority of residents, and suffers from insufficient planning on most fronts. What about the fiscal framework that they operate in, the infrastructure situation, the ongoing boil order issues or the issue of the municipal structure in NL? Stay tuned to Municipal Refit. Part 2

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