City hall's advisory committees are still a disaster

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Nancy Biggs poses for a photo at her home in Ottawa Ontario Tuesday June 20, 2017. Nancy has just quit as vice-chair of City Hall's advisory committee on environmental issues. Council doesn't even ask the committee's opinion on things, let alone listen to it, she says, and she'll be more use volunteering with outside groups like Ecology Ottawa. Tony Caldwell

David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen

Nancy Biggs regrets spending three years trying to advise city council on the environment.

“I had high hopes in the first year and it just became more and more evident as time passed that we weren’t really a resource to the city at all,” Biggs said Tuesday, the day after she quit as vice-chair of city hall’s environmental stewardship advisory committee. She’s the second to bail out in six months and other members are restive. “We have never really been utilized at all.”

City hall’s advisory committees have a long history of sucking up interested citizens with expertise, ignoring them and making them mad, and then spitting them out again.

Biggs has a master’s degree in environmental science and spent her career in medical research. Since she retired she’s been increasingly active in environmental causes. She thought helping craft city policies on garbage, energy and especially active transportation (like biking and walking instead of driving) would be a worthwhile project. Instead, “I just don’t feel like I’m being useful, or like I’m using my time well.”

Biggs thinks she can make more of a difference away from city hall, with groups like Ecology Ottawa and Citizens for Safe Cycling.

“I just don’t like it when you somehow imply that you’re getting really good advice and it’s somehow being acted on when it’s not,” agreed committee member Bill Eggertson, a former radio journalist who’s more recently worked in the renewable-energy sector. The committee amounts to “greenwashing,” he said, pretending the city is much keener on an environmental agenda than it really is.

The members of the committee aren’t randoms pulled in off the street or activist wackos, he points out; they applied for the volunteer positions and city council chose them.

“If there is somebody on an advisory committee who is hot on Issue X, if you’ve got that type of expertise, why not take advantage of it?” Eggertson asked.

In 2012, city council overhauled its advisory committees. The stated goal was to make them more effective: City staff didn’t consult them and councillors didn’t seem to know what they were for. The problem cracked open when virtually every advisory committee that had any stake in the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park voted to advise city council not to go through with the partnership it had with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group to do it. Councillors wondered openly why they had all these advisers they didn’t listen to.

They could either start listening to the advisers they’d selected or neuter them. Council chose the second one, slashing the number of advisory committees from 15 to five, replacing all their members and cutting their meetings from roughly monthly to four times a year.

So in November, when the city government’s 2017 budget was being debated, the environment advisory committee was supposed to take a look and make suggestions. Except, whoopsie, the city forgot to send someone to take part in the discussion so there was no point. The next meeting wasn’t till March.

At that March meeting, the agenda included a discussion of ways to make the committee work better. Members asked whether they could perhaps meet with the councillors on council’s environment committee — the people they notionally advise. We’ll look into it, city clerk Rick O’Connor told them. The advisory committee has a councillor on it who’s supposed to be the connection between the advisers and the decision-makers, College ward’s Rick Chiarelli, but, whoopsie, he wasn’t there. (I couldn’t reach him Tuesday afternoon.)

Staff reports fuel city council’s agendas, the engines of the city government. Could the advisory committee get copies of the reports city staff produce for council’s environment committee? the group asked. No, O’Connor said, city staff answer to council committees and that’s where their reports have to be delivered. But you’re consulted as they’re written.

No, we aren’t, the committee complained. Oh, said Steve Willis, the city’s new general manager of land-use planning and related things. He “apologized for the oversight,” the minutes say, and promised to do better.

Other committees do get consulted on things (the city hall HR department asked the francophone-services committee for advice on recruiting francophones, for instance) but they’ve all complained about unclear mandates and lack of direction.

“I think it all stems from the decision two terms ago to have advisory committees that meet very rarely, have slim resources and broad mandates,” said Coun. David Chernushenko, who chairs council’s committee on environmental issues, the one that has actual power. “I totally understand Nancy’s decision.”

Chernushenko criticized the advisory-committee reforms in 2012 and he’s happy to do it again. These things get re-examined at every election and he’ll push to give the advisory committees some of their teeth back, he said.

Just asking the committees for insight before a decision is made is really all it would take, Biggs said. “I don’t feel we’re effective at all. We’re asked about things after the fact. It comes to us and we have ideas and then they say, well, it’s basically already done.”

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