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Sunday, 13 April 2014

How about some real municipal reform?

The Municipalities Act was rewritten in 1999 and is occasionally amended to improve the original legislation. One example of a positive amendment was in 2007 when section 219 was updated to modify the ability of municipalities to engage in joint ventures for the purposes of service delivery. That's the kind of updating the act requires, changes that help modernize the Act and the sector to keep pushing municipalities toward greater accountability while also providing better resources.

On April 7th the Provincial Government sent out this release that indicates two new amendments. Specifically the text reads as follows:
 The first amendment will allow councils the discretionary authority to permit their councillors to attend meetings remotely. This will enable flexibility for councillors who are balancing council participation with family commitments, or who work from non-traditional locations or on an irregular schedule.

 The second amendment will allow councils the discretionary authority to appoint one or more youth representatives to council. These individuals, while not voting members, will bring the voice of youth to the council chambers and will add a new and important perspective to deliberations.
The complete text of the Bill can be found here. The unfortunate side of these amendments is that one is completely not required and the other simply enables struggling municipalities to remain on life support instead of performing the life saving surgery they desperately need. 

Redundancy is redundant.
Engaging youth in any democratic process is always a good idea. The average age of councillors in NL is reflective of the the high average age of the population across the province. So what's the issue with that first amendment above? Actually there are two issues with it. The first is that it is appointed so the council can choose anyone they like. Not exactly democratic. But my main issue is with regard to the fact that it is entirely unnecessary.

Section 25 is designed to allow councils to appoint anyone they want to any committee they want in order to ensure the proper operation of the town. This includes youth. Any council at any time could appoint an entire committee of youth specifically to provide the youth perspective. And this committee can have a chair who attends all council meetings and provides the youth perspective on any and all issues before council.

Bottom line is that legislation should be sharp and precise and not cumbersome and unnecessary. Encourage councils to use the ability they already have instead of doubling up on voluntary options.

Absence makes the votes go longer.
The second section of the proposed amendment will likely make quite a few councils pretty happy. There have been ongoing issues with getting enough people to serve on councils across NL and some towns have found that the Alberta job market has pulled away some folks who would, and have, serve on council. So this opportunity to attend council meetings via some kind of remote technology sounds like just what the Dr ordered right? Not exactly.

Again there are two issues here. First up is the idea of someone who for all intents and purposes barely lives in a community but still gets to make vital decision on how it runs. As long as a persons permanent residence is located in a community they are eligible to serve on council, even if they spend 80 or 90% of their time in another province. This is a little disconcerting for "local government" and I don't think it sets the right precedent. For emergency situations remote attendance is perfect but how many councillors will be attending the majority of their meetings from another province?

The second, and much larger issue here is that this is a stop gap measure that simply covers up the larger issue. The municipal sector has been in dire need of significant reform in NL for decades and Governments of various colors have been pretty much ignoring it all along. If it were one or two councillors that required the ability to attend remotely on occasion that would be one thing, but the number people on councils who work out west combined with the difficulty in getting people to serve on councils is just a small indication of the fundamental, and structural changes needed in the sector. This amendment is like putting a band aid on a broken leg.    

This "Bill 6" will likely pass and there will certainly be some councillors and councils who support it. It is worth noting however that as I write this it appears that Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) does not support at least one portion of the bill. My guess is that Municipal Affairs came up with these amendments without actually checking with the sector representatives if they made any sense. The bottom line is that this bill doesn't help engage youth and it doesn't provide for the sustainability of municipalities in NL. In fact it does pretty much nothing of any use at all. 

UPDATE
As reported here at VOCM MNL is clearly not in favor of at least part of the amendment.

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