We Need Schooling on CBRM Charter

District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes had three items on the general committee meeting agenda last night (including a truly meta item about getting items on meeting agendas) but the one I watched most closely (from the comfort of my own home) referenced the CBRM Charter.

Kendra Coombes, District 11

District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes

Coombes began by reminding council that a year ago — on 10 January 2017 — Councilor Ray Paruch requested an Issue Paper on a CBRM charter, including its purpose, samples of similar charters in Atlantic Canada and a “full draft” of the CBRM version.

Council also passed a motion to invite “knowledgeable professors from Cape Breton University” and Dalhousie’s Dr. Jack Novack to “provide advice on the proposed Charter.”

A year later, Coombes noted, no such Issue Paper has been produced and the only meetings with professors that took place were arranged, informally, by Coombes herself and attended by some — but not all — councilors.

In preparation for two public consultations on the charter this month, then, Coombes moved that council be given an outline of of the proposed charter and samples of similar charters in Atlantic Canada, a full draft of the proposed CBRM charter, the chance to discuss the charter with CBU profs and Novack, public consultations and time set aside during each general committee meeting of 2017/2018 to discuss the charter. (Her motion ultimately passed.)

 

Speed bump

The first question that occurs is, why was that Issue Paper not produced? Councilor Paruch asked the mayor why his motion was never acted upon, but the mayor gave no answer.

District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch

District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch

Clarke’s story is that “council” approved a list of three powers it wanted included in the “first phase” of the charter and must now wait for the provincial government to write legislation transferring those powers — all related to economic development — to the CBRM. Ergo, there is no “draft document” for council to look at. As for the purpose of the public consultation sessions, which would seem to be unnecessary in this context, Clarke says they will be to collect input for future phases of the charter.

But as Jim Guy noted in Wednesday’s Cape Breton Post, council’s involvement with the charter to date has been minimal:

We know that Mayor Clarke took it upon himself to initiate a charter application with Minister Michel Samson without gaining input from council at that time.

Councilor Paruch put it more bluntly during last night’s meeting, responding to a reference by the mayor to what “we” are looking at in terms of a charter:

It’s what you are looking at — we’re looking at nothing. We haven’t had one single meeting on the charter…This is your charter. You are treating us like a speed bump on these things.

 

Vision

Guy, an emeritus professor of political science at CBU (and one of the experts Coombes invited to address council last year), questions the mayor’s “vision” for the charter:

In other Canadian communities their charter is a generalized document designed to accommodate the many facets of municipal governance. Cecil Clarke’s perspective seems to be limited to moving quickly on the development of the port as a single achievement.

In other words, Clarke wants the charter because Clarke wants the ability to sign a 99-year lease for the port.

Guy argues the charter should be more than this:

While the charter should do that , it should be written with a wider vision in order to accommodate future projects initiated by new mayors as they will manage economic development in the area. The municipality will be here long after Mayor Clarke leaves. So the charter will need a much wider scope to accommodate new areas of development.

 

Public input

Guy says public input will give the charter a much better chance of passing the legislature.

But councilors during last night’s general meeting acknowledged the municipality’s public budget consultation sessions don’t produce much in the way of input, as few people turn out for them.

And now I’d like to share with you a crazy idea of mine for increasing public engagement in municipal politics: if people won’t come to your sessions, go to theirs.

Figure out where you will find the biggest groups of citizens in January in Cape Breton and just show up, either with your charter presentation or your invitation to the consultation sessions. Have the announcer at the Screaming Eagles games put in a plug for charter consultation — just before he announces the winner of the even split draw. Hold your session in the shopping mall on check day. Go to Sobeys the day before a storm and hand out flyers. Ask Wesley Colford to give you a few minutes to address the crowd at the Highland Arts Centre. Give high school students a period off to listen to your charter pitch. Grab the mic at a Chase the Ace draw. Hell, go to Tim Hortons!

I’m exaggerating — but only a little. We clearly need a better way to engage citizens, so meeting them on their own turf might actually be a good idea (if done respectfully, of course, you wouldn’t want to become known as that pol who keeps interrupting the Tarbish tournaments).

Another possibility is one I touch on in another story this week — appoint a citizens committee. Make it a big committee, one truly representative of the CBRM. Let them do the research and talk to the experts and make recommendations to council.

The funny thing is, I’m not even sure a charter will do us any good (I need to do some research of my own) but since we’re clearly destined to have one, why not make it the best it can be?

 

Note: I just received a copy of the handout to be presented for the budget and charter consultations:

2017 budget meetings handout re Charter

 

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