Citizen Engagement and Lobbying

Ottawa’s mayor celebrated one year in office this morning by chairing the second meeting of the Governance Renewal Committee, which was created right after his inaugural, at his request.  The first time it met was less than two weeks before.

Today’s meeting was to deal with an ambitious plan to set up a sweeping lobbying registry to make the activity of influencing the City more transparent.  The representative of the Federation of Citizens Associations (FCA), Bob Brocklebank, opined that it would be more appropriate for Council to study the state of citizen involvement more broadly before coming to any conclusion about what it is about lobbying that needed fixing.

The plethora of citizens — and the absence of professional lobbyists — was due to the Mayor’s proposal to include volunteers representing community associations in the bylaw’s requirements for both registration and the filing of reports on each encounter with a councillor of senior city official.

Even though the mayor presented an amendment at the beginning of the meeting, the 13 presenters, according to practice, came ahead of committee debate and vote on the report, so the presentations took place, five minutes per, plus councillors’ questions.   I came 12th, speaking as a former community relations officer for the old Region’s planning department, as well as a representative of several community groups “lobbying” over city policy.

I agreed with Mr. Brocklebank that the cart was getting ahead of the horse.  I recounted my advice to community leaders during my career that they should, in every presentation, describe their own mechanisms for democracy: who they represented, what members’ dues were, how many joined, and how many participated in the association’s activities in other ways.  This displayed their credentials to speak for these other people; to show that they could make a difference in the next election if they felt they were not being heard fairly.  My experience was that councillors always considered these matters before giving “weight” to their expressed concerns.

Too often citizens representatives lost out to developer interests.  The latter work full time, and meet with councillors, one-on-one during business hours, out of the public eye.  Besides that disadvantage — which the lobby registry would address — these groups did not rate their importance high enough, I felt.  Communities do have financial interests in these matters, since city decisions can make many tens of thousands of dollars difference in its citizen’s  home’s value.  [This connection is why these groups were previously labels “ratepayer” groups (referring to paying taxes — although tenants pay indirectly through their rent)].

My first recommendation was that, if these groups were to be excluded, then the city should set up a separate registry for them, in which they would document their “bona fides,” their claims to legitimacy.  As one councillor pointed out during a question to another presented, some citizen groups are really fabrications of lobby campaigns, and council should know which they are.  I also wanted these associations to “up” their game by asking members for much higher dues and fighting more effectively for their interests.  Condominium boards — of which there are about 800 in Ottawa — can draw on hundreds of dollars a month from a membership that can’t opt out, while “community associations” ask for at most $10 a year, which is not only voluntary, but is usually not part of a concernted membership campaign.  I was on the board of the Glebe Community Association for 11 years (1995-2006) and was very involved in canvassing, usually getting 50% of doors I knocked to join each year.  The monthly newspaper, quite independent from the GCA, also helped make it pretty much the most effective and more representative in the city.

My second recommendation was to shorten the time allowed for filing reports to the registry.   The “15 business days” translated into at least three weeks, too long to allow participants to use the transparency before the issue was resolved at council.  Such a deadline only encouraged procrastination.  It should consider what that reporting requirement would mean for this very issues, which was holding the hearing only nine business days after it tabled it.

My third point was the complete lack of attention in the draft bylaw to the workings of the registry.  Previous speakers questioned the Council budget that provided no FTEs (full-time equivalents) for its operation.  That would obviously not provide any staff just to help with registering lobbyists, let alone filing their — or the councillors and senior staff’s reports.  How would the transparency be provided without yet more staff?  Citizens and lobbyists would want access on a short-deadline basis, while university researchers would value more comprehensive access to whole sets of data, over immediacy.  And then there are the growing legion of bloggers, high-school students, etc.

I also commented that councillors would help to understand the process if they were to give their reasoning for their vote on each matter.

I concluded by saying that I had found the other presenters and their concerns to have been first-rate, a virtual blue-ribbon advisory panel that came for free, even though each had only five minutes to share an impressive body of experience.  But there is no standing advisory committee on governance [this committee is considering the status of the existing 16 advisory committees after the Mayor halted the process for renewing their mandates and memberships, a prelude, many suspect for their disbandment.  Surely this committee was able to see the value of such advice.

My conclusion?  The bylaw needs more discussion and thought before it is adopted.

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