Waiting game playing out at Victoria City Hall

High-salaried staff spend hours waiting to speak to council

  • Nov. 23, 2012 9:00 a.m.

It’s 10:45 a.m., and Victoria’s finance director Brenda Warner settles into a chair in council chambers.

A few minutes pass, and parks director Kate Friars joins her in the public gallery.

Luckily the chairs at City Hall are padded, as they’re in for a long wait for their turn to address council.

This governance and priorities meeting is going nowhere fast. At issue on this Nov. 15 morning is whether to collapse multiple public advisory committees into a single committee with a general mandate.

Debate soon unravels into a lengthy argument about whether council has enough information to make a sound decision. After much back and forth, council postpones a resolution for another day.

It’s a common enough theme: contentious council discussions that push meetings past the five-hour mark.

Meanwhile, highly paid directors – earning roughly $100 per hour – are sitting for hours at a time, waiting for their respective reports to come forward.

There is an irony in the situation.

For months, elected officials have been struggling to find savings in the budget. All the while, waste could literally be staring them in the face.

Coun. Lisa Helps doesn’t mince words.

“It’s a waste of time and a waste of money,” she said.

Helps has been noting the time staff spend in council meetings. “It’s a governance issue,” she said. “The problem is with the way we do business.”

She’s not the only one who has noticed a problem.

“The rumours have trickled out here,” said Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard.

Victoria could possibly take a lesson from its neighbour to the north.

In Saanich, agenda items requiring directors to be present are usually dealt with in the first half-hour of the meeting, Leonard said. “If we have something that’s going to come up later on in the agenda, then the management person will be in their office catching up on things and we’ll send them a text saying your item is about to come up.”

Texting removes the guesswork that often sees directors arriving well in advance of when they are needed.

It may work in Saanich, but Mayor Dean Fortin doesn’t see it as a solution for Victoria.

Instead, he points to live web streaming as a way to improve efficiency.

Filming council meetings is an idea that’s been suggested before.

“Directors can be at their desk, doing work, but still be mindful of what is happening,” said Fortin. It could allow staff to better time their appearance before council.

Better communication tools, however, won’t solve the problem entirely.

Several departments have been relocated outside City Hall, pointed out Coun. Chris Coleman. That means staff can’t easily walk down the hall when it’s their turn to speak.

Friars has likely felt the effects of this relocation more than most. The parks department is now located near the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, requiring a several-block commute to City Hall.

On Nov. 1, she waited on the sidelines of a meeting for four hours to speak to an in-camera issue, only to have it punted from the agenda. Friars did not return a call by the News and staff were instructed by the Communications department not to comment on the issue.

•     •     •

Back to the Nov. 15 meeting and Friars is again playing the waiting game alongside Warner.

At 12:45 p.m. Fortin interrupts the meeting by calling for a lunch break. Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe objects.

“The two directors have been sitting here since 10 a.m.,” she said. She requests council delay their break to respect their staff’s time.

Fortin takes issue with the perceived criticism.

“I do want to note that (while waiting) they’ve been working their Blackberries like crazy,” he said.

His depiction is an exaggeration at best.

Council agrees to power through. Friars takes her place at the mike to answer questions about a funding request for a mural.

Warner is up next. For three minutes she fields questions about an adjustment to the budget before being dismissed. It’s expensive advice, if you measure the time cost.

In an interview days later, however, Fortin frames the issue differently.

It’s not a simple matter of time wasted, he explained.

“There is large benefit for directors to understand the overall priorities and directions of council, which you get by being there,” he said. “(It helps them to) recognize what’s important, how it is integrated and how to move things forward.”

He also points to council members themselves.

“Council needs to be conscious of our own individual contribution to the length of debate and decision making. Frankly, council can do a better job of governing ourselves.”

rholmen@vicnews.com

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