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Kevin Beaulieu, interviewed by Jutta Mason, Sept.15 2010

Kevin Beaulieu -One of the problems with Parks and Recreationís new policy of non-consultation is that itís not capped in time. I can understand staff working against a deadline and the pressure that creates, and wanting to streamline things and make sure they get done, because otherwise the money wonít be there to pay for it. But that doesnít mean you cut out consultation. It means you define things properly, you share with the community what the pressures are, you say, look, we have to arrive here together by whatever time. I think you have to trust people to go along with that.

Jutta Mason -We know that meetings can be hijacked by people who want to talk about traffic, or about prostitution. But that policy just takes the whole problem and throws it out the window.

Kevin Beaulieu -Well first it identifies it as a problem. The fact is that the community is rarely unanimous on a given issue. Whatís missing is often a willingness on all sides to listen to good judgement and a willingness to achieve consensus. So you need somebody Ė and I think this is part of the role of the councillor Ė who can get all the inputs and exercise good judgment. I commit to consultation, but that become a platitude unless you know how youíre going to do it -- who youíre going to consult, and what kind of parameters you going to use in the different inputs.

JM -ďGoverning the CommonsĒ economist Elinor Ostrom says itís utterly important for people to have all the information, in order to make good judgements. But the Capital Projects staff are unwilling to let us see the MacGregor field house design drawings. Of course, even if we get to see such drawings, the problem is that weíre mostly novices looking at these diagrams, and so itís still puzzling. But not getting to see them at all is worse. Do Councillors have an absolute right to see all those kinds of details?

Kevin Beaulieu -No. Itís often a struggle for councillors to get that information even though one of the entitlements of being a councillor is that youíre supposed to be able to see all the documents and make a judgement based on the most complete information thatís available to everybody else in the decision-making process. That should actually also apply to the community. If something is going to be available to you at the end of a freedom of information request, why put anybody through that process? If you have a right to see it, it should be shared with you. But I can think of councillors who have themselves had to submit FOI request to get information. Now, usually staff will recognize that the councillor needs to have the information to make a decision, and a good councillor will share that with the community. A councillor often acts as an ombudsman. Itís not that the councillor always has absolute authority to get information or to make any staff person do a given thing. But they do have a good deal of influence, and a certain kind of moral authority that they can bring to bear. The councillor Ė and this a good thing to remember Ė is first and foremost a member of the community, and thatís important to their role.

JM -So if youíre an ombudsman for the community, because youíre really coming from the community, then what are the city staff? What is the power relation here?

Kevin Beaulieu -Council makes the decisions for the city and the local councillor brings the local input to that. The local councillor has some authority over spending. But itís specifically defined, for example, ďClean and BeautifulĒ grant money, generally, ďSection 37Ē money Ė Council follows the local Councillorís lead. But not always. Sometimes Council will say, look, in order for a Council directive to succeed, this project needs to happen.

Staff have a role, they have a certain expertise they bring to bear, a certain skill set, experience. Ideally that aligns with what the community wants, and if it doesnít, then you try to find the consensus...

JM -So in that sense the councillor becomes a kind of a broker?

Kevin Beaulieu -Yea, I guess you could use that word Ė broker, mediator, conciliator, facilitator. As a councillor you want frontline staff and managerial staff to achieve whatís important. So a good relationship with them is important. In the case of Macgregor Park, the front-line staff understand the local sensibilities. They use the buildings and they see whatís going on, they have a close-up.

JM -They work there a lot and so they are close to being members of the community. And thatís the thing that bothers upper management, because they want there to be a clear separation between the two.

Kevin Beaulieu - Right. And I donít think that works. Something Iíve learned over the years is that what works best is close contact with front-line staff who are there every day or at least regularly, working with the community, working in the buildings, working in the park Ė they become in effect members of the community and they have to be listened to.

JM - So if youíre a councillor youíre at least more local than the centralized staff operating citywide. Even though your ward is pretty big, youíre supposedly going to know about most of what goes on there.

Kevin Beaulieu - Right. And thatís because of relationships with the community. The councillor canít be everywhere all the time, and so relies on relationships with the community.

JM - Where does the buck stop? If something bad happens in the ward, the councillor does have to take responsibility in some sense.

Kevin Beaulieu -That comes with the job. You are responsible for what goes on in your ward.

JM - And so you should know whatís going on. So how much does a councillor know?

Kevin Beaulieu -You donít get told everything. You have to ask. Thatís why the budget process is so fascinating. Itís easy to say that the councillor should go through the budget line by line Ė itís a bit of a catch-phrase these days. But that process doesnít actually give you a true understanding of whatís going on. When you get the budget in front of you, itís a lot of line items with a lot of numbers on paper. Itís not enough to just read them and make a decision based on what you see there. You have to understand what each one of those line items represents. So you have to listen to community people, you can learn how an outdoor rink really works, how picnic tables are made Ė you donít get that from the budget documents. You get that by being around, being in the community, constantly learning, And you canít learn it all Ė you rely on involved community members to help out with that. Community is a joint project by definition.

So community consultation is an active thing. The councillor has to decide whether his office should be putting the question out there. And once youíve decided that, there are a number of ways of doing it. Do you flyer a community? Do you have a community meeting? Or at an extreme, do you have some sort of referendum, or plebiscite on an issue? I mean like they do for transportation, whether a neighborhood wants speed humps.

JM - Well, for speed humps you do a plebiscite, but for a $134,000 park building, no. According to Parks and Recreationís new non-consultation policy, thereís almost no cost ceiling Ė as long itís a state-of-good-repair project.

Kevin Beaulieu - I think the policy says the councillor can have one meeting. That said, the councillor who is really engaged in a matter can hold as many meetings as he wants to hold, and take input and then pass that on to staff and set certain expectations. Thereís nothing stopping a councillor from holding meetings.

JM - Itís just that he canít get staff to be there.

Kevin Beaulieu -Thatís right. Staff couldnít be required to be there. But it might be in their best interests to be there.

JM - So that guideline doesnít actually matter. If you want, as a councillor, to discuss something, nothing is going to stop you.

Kevin Beaulieu -It does matter. It signals a negative attitude to consultation. The councillor shouldnít have to do a workaround, and the community shouldnít have to, either. Consultation is not something to be avoided. It can be structured to be productive.

JM - That gets us to another problem Ė the professionally structured consultation. For example, Councillor Michael Walker said that the City spent about $200,000 on consultations for Oriole Park playground. They hired a firm, Planning Partnerships. I was at one of those meetings. Thereís a technique, a device Ė seating everyone at round tables and having separate, very structured discussions. It means no anger can develop, but it also feels utterly managed.

Kevin Beaulieu -There are different kinds of consultations, and it needs good judgment. A lot of people attend community meetings and actually feel shut out, because the meeting gets taken over, and somebodyís voice is not heard. So they enjoy the kind of meeting thatís managed. They can feel that theyíre part of the conversation. On the other hand, itís a much less focused kind of consultation, because you break things out and then try pull them back together. So there may be other cases where you have to have a traditional kind of community meeting.

JM - It seems to me that neither of them are really adequate. Frequency of conversation is a huge part of what makes things work. But everybody is short of time.

Kevin Beaulieu -That brings us back to the topic of centralization. MacGregor field house, to a senior manager looking at it, might appear like a very small, routine project. But from a park user perspective and a front-line staff perspective, it may be a lot more than that. There has to be a recognition of the fact that no decision is really all that small, that it wonít have an effect on the way a facility is used. Keeping track of all of that is not an easy task but thatís where you do rely on staff and on the community to tell you whatís happening on the ground. That said, nothing would ever happen if we didnít have a little bit of trust and faith in the ability of the staff whose job it is to carry out a project. You have to respect that people do the best that they can. But checking in regularly, and saying consultation isnít simply one meeting and then itís over, is important.

JM - But are you going trust staff even in a situation like MacGregor? Will ďtrustĒ have more weight than any other factors?

Kevin Beaulieu -Of course not. And trust is not just in one direction. You have to trust the community as well, not only the people doing the work. Also, who you trust has to come from experience with each other. To take an example, the councillor has to trust the city foresters that some trees need to come down. But sometimes a person will come and say, no, this tree is fine, and then you have to listen, and go yourself and look. So you should never disregard the expertise of the community.

JM - It seems to me that the Parks capital projects staff are in a conflict of interest situation. Youíve heard me sing this song before. I have not had it explained to me, in any way that I can grasp, that they are not. Their payroll is met through a percentage of the capital projects they carry out. So they have a big stake in spending more on capital projects. Dina Graser, who has a group called People Plan Toronto, is very concerned about the same setup for city planners. More and more they are dependent on development money, to meet their payroll and keep their jobs. Thatís a very serious structural problem.

Kevin Beaulieu - Council as a whole has a responsibility there. Its probably fairly complicated to get at that issue, because it applies throughout the city.

JM - I think itís just since amalgamation. I asked the audit director about the capital projects funding formula and he said, we donít have time to get into that.

Kevin Beaulieu - It may be something that itís time to pursue. Departments should be properly funded to do the work that we want them to do. Putting them in a position where they are dependent on revenue from an approvals process that they control Ė at the end of the day, they make decisions on the item. There needs to be work done on that. Iím not saying that I know what that is.

JM - Or that you would necessarily regard it as a priority for yourself. But as long itís not addressed, there wonít be frugality. The setup now means that if a Capital Projects manager doesnít spend enough on capital projects, their colleague at the next desk will be laid off. And thatís also why these huge state of good repair audits are used even though theyíre not very good. The Trades staff have often pointed out the flaws, but nobody is listening to them. Council has been asleep on this for a while. Because once a system like this is in place, every part of it is used as a reason to keep spending on that scale.

Kevin Beaulieu - Like a domino effect. But now itís been brought up. This is why elections are important. I would commit to pursuing it. The important thing to do is to understand the structure. Youíve got to dig down and see how itís filtered through the system. Itís not a case of simply cutting it off at the head.

JM - So that means a huge amount of work.

Kevin Beaulieu - Ideally, that would be work for the audit committee, Or the budget committee. As a member of one of those committees Ė Iíd want it to be researched to understand more. A number of people are quite concerned about it. And I would work with you, no question, to answer this, to produce an analysis and make the changes. I want to address the way the city sometimes spends money without the depth of analysis thatís appropriate.

Content last modified on October 04, 2010, at 03:29 AM EST