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Good headlines don’t make good governance, consultant says

The author of the damning, $37,000 governance audit of city hall sympathized with the mayor and senior city staff at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

George Cuff, who conducted the two-day audit Sept. 4-5 with his associate Jeff Nixon, was in attendance to personally present his findings of a dysfunctional city council.

“We were called in because council was, and to some extent still is, struggling (in its) relationship with one another,” Cuff began. “This community has elected this council to be the guardians of the public purse, to set good policy for the future, to establish priorities on how to govern the city’s budget process – all of this should come from this council but it won’t if council’s caught up on turning the wagons and shooting inward, which I find to be very non-productive. It may make for good headlines, but it doesn’t make for good governance.”

Cuff went on to explain that part of the problem could lie in the fact that in most communities the elected mayor is typically someone already serving on council and has experience as a politician, which Mayor Walter Jakeway did not when he was elected last year.

“In this case the mayor is new to both governance as well as to this role on council,” Cuff said. “As a result of that, I would cut some slack relative to the mayor’s penchant to jump ahead and make announcements he may not be entitled to make or making comments he might consider throw away lines...but which turn out to be headline grabbers because it’s coming out of the mouth of the mayor.”

Cuff also warned council about its treatment of city staff, such as verbal assaults thrown at senior staff through the media and during council meetings.

“There ought to be respect for the advice provided to council by your administration and there ought to be respect generally for the administration and the role it plays,” Cuff said. “While council may not agree with the administration’s advice – all of that is fair play – what isn’t, is undermining the credibility of your staff. I think that’s unwise (and) will demoralize your staff.”

Cuff acknowledged that, “city hall has been referred to as ‘toxic’ and that senior staff ‘don’t get it.’ Staff have been accused of trying to preserve the bureaucracy at all costs, even manipulating this year’s budget process and that senior staff cling to their policy documents.”

Cuff said it’s unfair of council to go after city staff members, whose professional backgrounds tell them to respect elected officials.

“We recommend that members of council treat senior staff with respect and civility,” he said. “Management’s not in a position to fight back unless they have a resume in their other hand.

“Staff wants to do what’s right by council and work for council and doesn’t want to be beaten up by council.”

Cuff also had some specific advice for the mayor, who has publicly voiced his frustration with council decisions in the past – most notably, when he called for a tax revolt after council voted in favour of a 13.6 per cent residential tax increase this spring.

“We recommend that the mayor accept as his role, the need to show support for council’s decision even when personally not in agreement,” Cuff said. “The mayor needs to be in support of the issue. Whether the issue is voted on 4-3, 5-2, or 6-1, that matters not. It simply matters that the mayor is now speaking on behalf of council’s decision.”

Jakeway, for his part, said Tuesday morning that he agreed with Cuff’s findings and advice, particularly that his own agenda has polarized council.

Councillors Andy Adams, Claire Moglove, Mary Storry and Jakeway thanked Cuff for his report on Tuesday night. Council voted to receive the report, and although no formal resolutions were made on the report’s recommendations, Storry did say council has made some changes already.

Also encouraging was Cuff’s parting words to council.

“I can tell you, rest assured, there are councils that are very dysfunctional and hate each other...and as a result of that, nothing gets done,” he said. “I think this council needs to be encouraged that it’s nowhere near the dysfunction I’ve seen in other places, including here on the Island.”

Cuff, a former mayor of Spruce Grove, Alta. has conducted governance audits for several local governments including Hope, Smithers and the former Comox-Strathcona Regional District.

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