Toronto’s City Manager has sent a proposal to City Council’s executive committee for their April 20 meeting that seeks to eliminate most citizens’ advisory committees (PDF), including the Pedestrian Committee, the Cycling Committee, and the Task Force to Bring Back the Don.
Citizens’ advisory committees, made up of citizen volunteers with some representation of city councillors and school boards, play an important role in getting city staff and city council to pay attention to issues that they might otherwise neglect. Eliminating them will serve to further isolate City Hall from the citizens it is supposed to represent.
Nor is there any benefit to eliminating advisory committees — they don’t cost any money (the report notes there would be no financial implications for this move), they only take up a few hours of staff time a month, and they benefit the city with the unpaid work of committed citizen volunteers.
I should state up front that I am very interested in this issue, as I have been a member of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee for seven years and its co-chair for four years. However, my term is up and, if the committee continues, I would be leaving is as soon as new members and co-chairs are chosen.
Citizens’ advisory committees give citizens a greater voice in the affairs of City Hall in a couple of ways. First, the committees can talk directly to city staff and can send motions to council standing committees, putting issues directly on the city hall agenda. Without the committees, citizens are dependent on either finding a councillor who is willing to take interest in the issue and add it to their busy schedule, or hoping that city staff schedule some kind of consultation on the issue. Both councillors and staff already have their own issues, and both have to take internal political considerations into account that limit the number of initiatives they bring forward. Advisory committees make it possible for citizens to get issues on the agenda that are important to the city’s inhabitants, but might not be at the top of the political agenda.
Another big advantage of citizens’ advisory committees is that they can work with relevant staff over an extended period, in a public and transparent manner. Normally, citizen consultations are on a specific project, happen here and there, and then are over. There is not a lot of scope to work on an an issue with city staff over the long term and make sure the issue stays on the radar and that there is continuous improvement. Advisory committees, by contrast, can track an issue, and can arrange meetings with staff in all relevant parts of the city bureacracy.
An example from the Pedestrian Committee is the issue of clearing downtown main street sidewalks of snow and ice. Despite their heavy pedestrian traffic, for a long time clearing snow from the sidewalks of main streets downtown was left to property owners. The result was busy sidewalks that were intermittently blocked or icy, and huge puddles of melting slush at the corner of intersections with blocked drains after snowfalls. The Pedestrian Committee pressed staff on this issue during recent winters with heavy snowfalls. As a result, the city started systematically ploughing the sidewalks of main streets downtown soon after major snowfalls, greatly improving pedestrian safety (we still need to work on ploughing downtown residential streets).
This was not really a council issue — it was something that we brought to the attention of staff, and staff were able to address it without having to send it to city council. It was having an advisory committee that made this process possible.
The City Manager proposes other kinds of mechanisms for consultation, but none of them would have the kind of direct access and well-established long-term existence that makes advisory committees effective.
Nor is it true that simply having a City strategy in place means that a committee is no longer needed. As we all know, the City of Toronto has many excellent plans and strategies that are never actually implemented. Advisory committees help to monitor them so that, once a strategy has been created, it actually gets implemented.
Some advisory committees do become dormant, and if they do, that’s a good sign that it’s time to wrap them up. But the current proposal also seeks to eliminate committees that it admits are still active and relevant.
Citizens spent a lot of time and effort getting these committees established in the first place, and have spent a ton of time and effort making them work. Many survived amalgamation and successive mayoral regimes. It is a huge waste to simply cast away that accumulated work without thought.
Toronto’s tradition of active citizenship is one of its key assets. It makes sense to harness that resource, not ignore it.