by KEN WIESNER
Interim CAO, Village of Valemount
The following write-up is adapted from a speech and has been used by Wiesner over the years to inform people about governance and administration.
I was unsure of what I wanted to share with you, until a couple of weeks ago. We were having lunch with seven or eight people at the lake and one guy was talking about running for Regional District Director and he said that he would then have the Regional District Administrator as his boss, and a couple of others agreed with this. A lot of you know I was a City Manager for almost 40 years. Sometimes I was accused of being too political – and perhaps I was – but I want to make it clear that, when City Administration is driving the agenda or direction of a municipality or Regional District, you have a sick form of governance. This applies to any non-government body or organization as well.
Municipal government affects everyone every day, i.e. police, fire, roads, water, sewer, land use, parks, recreation, libraries, culture, traffic control, street lights, building inspection, licences, bylaws, etc.
“There can be no democracy unless it’s a dynamic democracy. When our people don’t choose to participate, to have a place in the sun, then all of us will wither in darkness, all of us will become mute, demoralized, lost souls.” (Saul D. Alinsky).
“People have always found it easy to be governed, what is hard is for them to govern themselves.” (Max Leiner). Many years ago I had the opportunity to hear Professor John Nalbanden, the Dean of the #1 Public Administration University in the USA, from Lawrence, Kansas, speak to us at a Federation of Canadian Municipalities convention. He was also on council for eight years and mayor for two years. He talked about a connecting partnership for the purpose of building a sense of community. It makes sense to build a community, to help people become part of the community, to see themselves as a member of the community.
Politics is a choice between conflicting values. Here is an example of politics: You have a child or grandchild just starting arithmetic. You say, “Tell me what you did today.” Your grandchild replies, “We did 2 + 2.” You ask “And what did you say?” He replies, “I said 4, but Jason said 5.” You asked, “What did the teacher do?” And your grandchild answered, “She had us vote on it.”
The question 2 + 2 = 4 is a matter of fact; this is a right-answer problem. In our government there are many right-answer problems. However, there are many no-right-answer problems; i.e., the city had a high accident intersection and hired a Transportation Engineer. His solution was to provide a dedicated left hand lane. The Mayor asked the Engineer, “If we had 100 traffic engineers giving a solution, how many would come up with this recommendation?” The Engineer answered that 95% would recommend this, and the other 5% you would not want to do business with.
For that Engineer, the answer was 2 + 2 = 4, or matter of fact.
So how do you turn a 2 + 2 problem from a right- answer problem into a no-right-answer problem?
What is a no-right-answer problem? It is when, even with all the facts, we can still disagree on the solution. That is politics. Here is how it becomes a no-right-answer problem to the politicians.
They have to acquire a right-of-way. The acquisition of a right-of-way includes some historical property. If they can’t acquire the historical property, they have to move across the street. However, the problem with this is these homeowners don’t want to sell. Now, because of our interest in their property, a neighbourhood association was started. At a meeting, the neighbourhood association stands up and says, “If you take this property you are going to marginalize these properties and they will become rental houses. It’s not a good idea”.
Someone else comes to the podium holding his piece of paper and says, “Three months ago council made one of your six goals to stabilize and maintain the integrity of neighbourhoods. Then the last nail: someone gets up and says,”You would really be listening to us if we were from the west side of town.” From the Engineer and staff perspective, this is still a 2 + 2 = 4 problem, but for the Council this is no longer a 2 + 2 = 4 problem or a right-answer problem.
So who should decide about issues or problems that aren’t right-answer problems? These are questions of values. Now why would we give a group of ordinary citizens the authority to make these kinds of decisions?
The biggest problems you have in communities are problems with no-right answers. Here we have councils, with no particular knowledge, skills, or abilities set out in advance, who are now the authorities to make these decisions. What is the logic to that? The logic is that after they see the alternatives given and understand all the consequences to the alternatives, not one person is better suited to say what consequences are better for the community. You cannot say a lawyer, an accountant, a mechanic, or a housewife can make better choices, because they will make choices based on values based on the people they represent.
Representation, efficiency, professionalism, social equity and individual rights together represent political responsiveness. Representation is that you actually do feel you are elected to represent. It means when someone calls you on the phone you will listen to them. You listen because you are a representative.
Efficiency and professionalism means more than just the cost-benefit analysis or saving money. It means the rational analytical thinking, long-term planning, and it also means doing the greatest good for the greatest number for the long-haul.
Social equity: the people on the west side or the east side, old vs. young, apartment owner vs. homeowner, racial minorities, whatever. How we measure its fairness is comparison between groups.
Individual rights! Individuals have the right to be protected from unreasonable acts of government. Now, in order to build and maintain a sense of community, councils have to work with these values, they don’t have a choice in order to build and maintain a sense of community if that is their goal.
Councils cannot build a sense of community by sending a message that political minorities are to be excluded. The way they do it is theoretically very simple. In order to build a sense of community amongst citizens, councils have to show a sense of responsibility for the collective good. They have to show they can get things done that people cannot do individually while respecting the values of representation, social equity, efficiency, professionalism and individual rights.
These questions of values, these are the hardest work anyone can do. They are problems that are characterized by these conflicts over values. There are no-right answers to many
of these problems.
To assist governance, it is important to have administrative staff as partners and the better the partnership the easier it is to engage them in the problem solving. I used to tell administrative staff that if you judge the council based on their frame of problem solving, they are always going to fall short, because councils have to deal with no- right- answer problems causes by the above example.
Also, councils differ from administration in that they deal in stories, and staff deal in reports. What happens is that stories become very powerful to politicians; staff can never understand that; it is beyond them because they deal in reports, or they should.
This is the way it works. Someone calls a council member and says “They are putting another road on the west side of town. The west side gets all the new infrastructure.” This is a story about the inequities of the west side vs. the east side of town. The staff then prepares a report outlining the amount of money spent on both sides. Let’s compare stories and reports. Stories insert passion into the governance process; reports take the passion out. Stories reflect a subjective view of a citizen’s place in the community. “Let me tell you what happened when the emergency medical people came to my house the other day. They saved my husband’s life.” It’s a story. It is subjective slice of life that connects that citizen to the government.
The reports are more objective. The validity of stories is judged by the listener. Stories we know best are captured from enduring themes: good vs. evil, democracy vs. communism, big government vs. individual citizen.
Every election campaign is about stories. In the 1960’s Martin Luther King said “We shall overcome.” It was a story. These are powerful stories and the more diverse the audience that an elected official is dealing with, the simpler the story. Administrative staff should not be dealing in stories. The currency for elected people is power and the currency for administrative staff is knowledge by objective reports.
The two things elected officials need to know are: how to influence other elected officials, and how to engage them without enraging them. What happens and constitutes power for elected people or measure of power is whether anyone listens to their stories? Now real power is if you can change your story and they still listen.
The reports are more objective. Staff should not be dealing in stories. They should deal in objective analysis that is presented in reports based on specialized knowledge.
The danger here is that each side looks at the other side from its own perspective. If staff evaluates council as a problem-solving task force, the council will fall short in their eyes. On the other side, council will look at staff and expect them to be as flexible as council and that does not work. This is where the City manager (Chief Administrative Officer) comes in the middle and translates and aligns council’s expectations, and explains the different roles and how, and why, they can take a right-answer problem and make it into a no-right-answer problem.
The City Manager (CAO) and, sometimes the Mayor, have to take stories, conflict, bits and pieces of discussion at council and translate them into problems that have to be solved because without translating you can’t engage the staff. On the other side, you have to take the recommendations and reports of staff and give to the council as legitimate alternatives so council can do the value evaluations that council is expected to do. In addition, the City Manager (CAO) has to be involved in alignment, making sure that council and staff are working on the same problems and issues that are held in high regard for council.
In order to work long-term, an elected official has to take pride in the legacy they are leaving. This is not easy if they are only interested in getting re-elected. In the end staff can bring options and solve problems and bring information but staff cannot define the priorities. Only council can decide what solutions should be adopted for no-right answer problems.
The democratic process is messy. It’s an art and a craft, it’s not a science. Politics and administration are different ways of thinking as well as different ways of acting.
Municipalities need a strong Mayor and Council who are active in the role of governance and have to be in charge.
There is only one group that has the mandate to bring all common groups together to create a common vision.