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Policies reflect a council’s ethos

Policies tell citizens what “the city” is doing and why, writes André Carrel

By André Carrel

The Dictionary of Canadian Law defines a policy to be “a government commitment to the public on principles to follow an action or course of action in pursuit of an agreed objective.” Policies reflect a council’s approach to issues; they guide managers in their day-to-day decisions that implement council’s political decisions.

Policies are a more meaningful source of information than bylaws for citizens with questions about what “the city” is doing and why. For example, the budget bylaw (budget) tells citizens how many million dollars council has approved for general municipal services in the current year, and how many millions council plans on spending on general municipal services in each of the next four years.

The bylaw provides no answers to questions concerned with the often dismal conditions of our streets and sidewalks. By comparison, Policy #43, the city’s “snow and ice control” policy informs the public about council’s direction to management in the matter of winter road and sidewalk maintenance. The policy enables inquiring citizens to discern whether winter road and sidewalk problems are due to poor management or to inappropriate council’s direction.

Bylaws are legally enforceable, and their consequences may be far-reaching. Bylaws in the realm of finance and land use can and do have a significant impact on the community’s citizens and businesses. It is reasonable, therefore, that a strict and narrowly defined process for the enactment of bylaws is prescribed in provincial law. It is equally reasonable that the public have ready and easy access to bylaws.

The city’s web page provides ready access to council agendas and minutes, and to bylaws, but not to policies. The city’s policy index lists 73 policies dealing with anything from bomb threats to a scent-free workplace.

Some policies are decades old without ever having been reviewed or revised. A few are being revised periodically. They are readily available, on request, from the city’s administration, but they should be prominently listed on the city website.

Policies reflect a council’s ethos. All policies, without exception, should be subject to an annual review on the anniversary of their adoption, to be confirmed, revised, or deleted as council deems appropriate. Council’s procedure bylaw should be amended to establish policies as a standing item on the agenda of every regular meeting. Giving policies a prominent position on council’s agenda would encourage debate on services and their delivery, and it would thus provide citizens with a better understanding of where their elected council is at on a broad range of issues.

A citizen should be able to draw council’s attention to inconsistencies in the delivery of a service, a condition that may open a debate on council: should management be reminded to adhere to the established policy, or should the policy be amended in response to a new reality? A citizen may want to draw council’s attention to a new problem and ask council to develop a policy to deal with the matter. A citizen may offer an idea or two for council to consider.

Elections can bring about a substantial change in the make-up of a council. Giving policies a prominent standing on council’s agenda and the city’s web page, gives council an opportunity to put a spotlight on their work. Doing so would also enhance the citizens’ efficacy to monitor their new council’s performance.