Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Firewall Between Politicians and Staff

Executive Summary: 

Contrary to what many citizens would wish, there is an administrative barrier between elected officials and city staff that keeps the former from being able to influence the behaviour of the latter, except through the creation of policy. The reason why this has become part of standard operating procedure is because unless this "firewall" exists, there are simply too many opportunities for political corruption. Unfortunately, this has caused some problems in that some staff members have become so protected by a wall of secrecy that it is often almost impossible for ordinary voters to understand the actions of local government in some situations.

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The Firewall Between Politicians and Staff 

I sometimes hear people complain about how "distant" and "bureaucratic" Guelph's public employees have become. They long for the "good old days" when they could just pick up a phone, call your local Councillor about a hole in the road, and, staff would show up the next day to fix the pothole. Now Councillors refuse to get involved and instead tell people to contact Public Works themselves. How come?

It's important to realize that what we call "the government" consists of two very different bodies: elected officials, and, administration. When it is working properly there is a "firewall" between the two bodies. Council simply cannot tell staff what to do. Instead, staff are managed by the Chief Administrative Officer, and, he or she follows the budget and policy directives of Council.

Why this formal distance between politicians and staff. After all, don't we elect our Council to run the city?

First of all, it would be tremendously inefficient to have city employees acting like the personal servants of politicians. The roads department has a budget and a schedule of road maintenance. If they drop everything to come down and fix your pothole because you complained, it means that they aren't doing something else in another part of the city.  For example, Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto once called upon his city transit department to fix potholes in front of his family's business, Deco Labels and Tags, because he was having a reception and he wanted everything to look nice. According to the Toronto Star, this work (which included repairs to culverts) cost the city between seven and ten thousand dollars. (It shouldn't have happened, but when the Mayor calls, it is difficult to say "no".)

Secondly, if municipal employees did start routinely working like this, then it would open the door to a lot of different types of corruption.

Boss Tweed
From the Hoxie Collection
Imagine that the road work isn't just to help the Mayor's personal business. Maybe someone who is a large donor to his campaign wants some work done on his street, so he gets preferential treatment. Or, maybe the Mayor wants to raise money for his next election campaign and starts telling people that they won't get any work done unless they make a donation first.

And this sort of corruption doesn't end at getting a few potholes fixed. It could also involve who gets a lucrative contract such as building a new sewage treatment plant. Or, it could become so fine-grained that it involves everyone who works for the city---join the wrong political party and you will never get the job. The best example of this sort of system was the Tammany Hall "electoral machine" that existed for hundreds of years in New York city. In it's heyday---under the infamous "Boss Tweed"---you simply couldn't get a job sweeping the street or a contract to supply paving stones unless you joined the Democratic Party and helped elect their candidates.

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Beyond the problem of corruption, there lies another issue, expertise.

How often have you heard a politician make big promises while running for office and yet end up doing much the same as her predecessor once elected? People will complain bitterly and say "politicians are all the same", but more likely than any moral failings, the newly elected person simply didn't understand the complexity of governance and made promises that were impossible for anyone to keep.

Just one of the problems that a newly elected official often faces is the fact that we live in a society governed by the rule of law. And this applies to city governments as much as any individual. This means, for example, that if a person runs on a platform of "cutting waste" they will find that the largest part of the budget (47% in the Guelph 2016 budget) is wages. If the city is going to significantly cut costs, it is probably going to have to either eliminate a certain number of workers or cut their wages. The problem with that is two-fold.

First of all, City Council doesn't actually hire or fire anyone---that is the job of the Chief Administrative Officer. The reason why this is the case gets back to our old friend Boss Tweed. If Council could hire and fire individuals then it would be able (and greatly tempted) to use staff positions as a mechanism for fundraising and awarding patronage.

Secondly, people hired by the city are protected by both union and professional contracts. This means that Council has to abide by the provisions of those contracts, and that means that there would be unexpected consequences if they try to save money by arbitrarily cutting staff or paying them less. For example, many union contracts are governed by seniority clauses that would mean that the first people laid off have to be the last people hired. In a lot of institutions this might lead to a dramatic reduction in productivity because the latest hires are often the ones most "up to date" with new technology. More to the point, attempts to cut staff may lead to strikes which can cause chaos in a municipal government. In addition, people in administration often have professional contracts that require significant "golden parachutes" in exchange for dismissal "without cause". It's hard to save money by eliminating positions when you will have to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to get rid of the person filling it.

In addition, city governments are "stuck" with having to fund services that they effectively have little or no control over. If you look at the 2016 budget for Guelph it is revealed that 17% of the budget goes to police services. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario has complained that the growth in both police and fire costs is causing significant hardship to municipalities. Primarily, the problem is that the police department is controlled not by City Hall, but by the Police Services Board. It is true that City Council is supposed to have "final say" over the police budget, but the largest part of that budget are wages and salaries. And because police officers are an "essential service", this means that their contract negotiations are ultimately controlled not by their ability to go on strike or management's to lock them out, but by the Labour Board arbitrators who come up with binding resolutions to contract disputes.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan
US Gov
This is exactly the sort of detail that will derail a politician who comes into office vowing to "cut taxes" come Hell or high water. And, it is important for the administration to be able to effectively "push back" against Councillors who think that if they "huff and puff" they can ignore the law of the land. If the city staff can't force the Council to see reason, a city could find itself in the situation of repeatedly losing lawsuits, facing unnecessary strikes, and, generally descending into total chaos. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famous for saying, as a politician "you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts". A large part of the job of city staff is to point out the distinction between the two. A city can function with different opinions, but it must adhere to the facts or it will fail.


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A third important function of staff is to ensure that there is continuity between administrations.

Almost everything that a city does involves periods of time that are much longer than a politician's term of office. There are still sewer pipes in Europe, for example, that were laid in the Middle Ages. That's why it is tremendously important for staff to remind newly elected officials about decisions that were undertaken by previous administrations. One terrible example of what can happen if a city refuses to stick to the policies of the previous Councils is the endless dithering that has occurred over the expansion of transit services in Toronto. Ultimately, the core problem is that no matter what plan is agreed upon, the upfront cost is going to be huge and the benefits are only going to be visible long after the current batch of elected officials have left office.

Given this reality, the always present temptation for elected Councillors is going to be to save money by "kicking the can down the road" instead of making expensive, long-term investments. The best example that I can think of for this in the Guelph context is the District Energy project. This is often touted as being a totally new type of project, but in actual fact, it is really a very old, proven idea. Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, London, and many universities---including the U. of Guelph---have district energy systems, some of which date back to the late 19th century.  The problem isn't that district energy systems don't work, it is that they are a very long term investment that requires a large amount of capital up front and which pay themselves off over the long haul. This causes problems with governments and businesses that find themselves fixated on the next election or quarterly earnings report. In the specific case of the this particular one, the commitment to a district energy project needs to continue even though the energy market is currently going through a short-term period when energy costs have dropped far lower than when it was initially proposed. Over the next 100 years this will be only a momentary "blip", but elected officials who have a much shorter time frame need to be reminded of this fact. This is where staff need to step in and ensure continuity between administrations.

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Having said all of the above, it is important to also remember that elected officials serve a very useful purpose. Theoretically, their job is supposed to be about developing an over-arching policy direction that is informed by the staff's knowledge, but is ultimately based on their judgement. Unfortunately, it is possible for staff to use their position as bearer's of knowledge and expertise to manipulate the elected official.

I can remember many years ago that the provincial Mike Harris government was of the opinion that Guelph should have a charity casino. As a result, Guelph was ordered to set up a citizen panel to choose the best place for one. I volunteered and ended up on that board. At the first meeting it became clear that every single person on the board was opposed to the casino. Indeed, the representatives for St. Joseph's Hospital said that they only joined to come to the first meeting and announce that they refused to take a penny from the earnings of any casino that would be built in the city.

But in the midst of that sea of opposition, the staff member who was "advising" the group stated up front that Guelph was going to get a casino and that there was absolutely nothing that the city could do to stop it. I happened to know that other municipalities had set up boards like ours and had decided that their job was to engage with the citizenry and stop their casino from being built. I argued that since none of us were in favour of it, we should do the same thing. One of the ideas I put forward was to post signs in all the neighbourhoods that were being considered to let people know what was going on. The staff member almost had a heart attack at that point, and convinced all the other members that this was an insane idea because it would "lower property values" in the neighbourhoods. When it became obvious that "the fix was in", I resigned.

I am not a professional staff member. I've never been to a planning school. And yet, where is the casino in Guelph? It turns out the staff member really didn't know what he was talking about after all.

In another case, some neighbours and I had a problem with a cab company that had moved into a predominantly residential neighbourhood. When the bars closed large numbers of drunks were streaming out of the downtown and congregating outside of the office. At times there were as many as thirty loud, obnoxious people congregating in the neighbourhood waiting for a cab to pick them up. The taxi bylaws had mandated that the cab company had to provide a waiting area for people, but the city had waived this rule after the company moved. So, in effect, the neighbour's front yards became the place where they waited.

The bylaws clearly stated that the Police Board controlled the cab companies, so it had the power to deal with this problem. Yet when consulted by the board, the police lawyer refused to advise any action. Indeed, he refused point blank to even say why he refused to take regulatory action. He would simply just ignore the question. Since the Board was loathe to ignore his "advice", they just let things drag on and on. It was only after the Mayor (who sits on the Police Board) stepped in and suggested that a mediator be hired to negotiate a solution to the problem that one came about. In effect, the Board had to spend tax payer's money to come up with a cumbersome and expensive "work around" due to the intransigence of a staff member.

This is one of the problems with professional staff. Their training tells them the intricacies of how things usually operate, but at the same time trains them to never "think outside the box". This can dramatically limit their ability to solve problems.

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In the best of all situations there should be a sort of "dynamic tension" between elected officials and administrative staff. Councillors should never gain complete control, or else you will end up with disasters like Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed. On the other hand, if staff take over they will start controlling elected officials by at best dismissing all innovation and at worst manipulating them by controlling the information they are fed. Elected officials have to be willing to listen to the expertise of staff and accept that they need to maintain continuity with the decisions of previous Councils, but they also have to assert their authority to determine city policy and procedures---even if it sometimes goes beyond the professional staff's "comfort zone".

Politicians and voters need to have some sort of understanding about the influence of staff in managing Guelph. Unfortunately, it seems to be very difficult for anyone to find out exactly what is or is not happening at the highest management levels. People come, people go, large amounts of money get paid out in settlements. Fred Dahm's book Conflict and Compromise:  Politics and Planning in Guelph 2000 to 2015 has an appendix that lists various changes in positions and cites specific dollars awarded, but he freely admits that he has no idea at all about why any of this took place. As he mentions in a podcast interview with Guelph Politico, all inquiries about specifics of personnel decisions hit a brick wall.  It might be that this is all quite professional and "above board", but it doesn't really serve the voter very well. I understand and respect the need to create a fire wall between staff and elected officials, but in the interest of democracy I think that our society should develop a little more transparency when it comes to the highest levels of the civil service. These people simply have too much power to allow them to work completely in the shadows.


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