Leadership stuck in neutral?

Burlington is not changing. It has already changed.

One indication is the shift in our local political landscape resulting from the 2015 federal and 2014 provincial elections.

You can also look to the increasing impact of intensification, traffic congestion, a rapidly aging population, affordability and much more.

Simply put, this isn’t your grandparents’, or even your parents’ Burlington anymore!

If you haven’t noticed or been introduced yet: Welcome to the new Burlington.

changes sign

What may have been true in the past, and perhaps may still be today, it’s likely not going to hold in the future.

Why does it seem this message of change is not getting through to City Council?

They’ve begun the 2nd year of a second 4-year term together (i.e. same Mayor and Councillors), and they still haven’t completed this term’s Strategic Plan – which is only intended to guide City Hall until the next municipal election in 2018.


Heck, the Town of Oakville passed its 2015-2018 Strategic Plan in May. Kind of gives you a case of municipal peer envy (that’s peer, not pier).

Council members continue to scratch their heads and debate about our strategic direction – trying hard to follow the lead of yet another consultant hired to provide yet another round of “stakeholders” surveys, colourful diagrams and high-sounding concepts (KPMG in this case).

And they’re still working on the first draft for the public to review.

strategic plan meeting with kpmg (courtesy of burlington gazette)

Would you get into your car and drive without knowing where you’re headed?

Would you do it for over a year?

Delay is not the real timing problem. It’s the 2018 part of the Strategic Plan.

Buried deep in a previous consultant’s report to the City is this gem ….“Burlington needs a strong, long term vision”.

Stop there. Now, please, strap yourself in. Get ready for a jarring moment of clarity.

stop sign for clarity

2018 is NOT long term.

Imagine us 20 years or more from now. 2035 and beyond. THAT’S long term.

So, how do we get there from here?

As mentioned, the same-old approach and same-old expectations won’t cut it anymore in this City. Times have changed.

More to the point, can the same-old Council map the route? More on that later.

To start, and as a happy coincidence, this Council is also dealing with the long-overdue process of an Official Plan Review.

City Hall posted a slick video in 2012 to help explain what that’s all about (with barely over 2,000 views in 3 years, this video may sadly reflect that few citizens are paying attention)….

Did you hear the time frame? A land-use strategy for the next 20 years.

Another coincidental and well-timed situation involves the revamped Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC). It’s working on a 10-year vision for Burlington’s economy.

Not 20 years, but not bad either.


BEDC’s interim report is regrettably filled with “pillars”, “enablers”, “strategy houses”, “unique and inspirational branding” and other consultant-rich stuff.

Nevertheless, Council will hopefully fold much of the BEDC’s basic ideas into the City’s new Strategic Plan and next Official Plan.

Why? Growing our local economy (a.k.a. creating jobs) by expanding the commercial tax base is the greatest challenge and top priority for Burlington – and if successful, that factor alone can help fuel and propel any of the City’s plans long into the future.

job creation

Faced with a required 20-year commitment for the next Official Plan, and armed with a critical 10-year plan from the BEDC, Council should be setting out a crystal-clear picture of 20 years from now as the most integral part of the new Strategic Plan.

Looking only to 2018 is short-sighted.

Design the next Strategic Plan around specific long term outcomes (and count them using as few fingers as possible) – and then Burlington will have real direction, with unity through purpose.

Such outcomes should be difficult for future Councils to change (e.g. only by unanimous vote). Every Council must also be held accountable to implement and commit to the plan, by regular monitoring and plain language reporting to the community.

But do we have the real leadership today to shift gears and drive forward with this change, at such an important and timely juncture?

city council 2015

Let’s hope they don’t roll out a reheated version of past Strategic Plans – filled with lovely platitudes and tough-to-measure short term outcomes.

Will this Council take the time, energy and risk to show us a Strategic Plan starting 20 years from now (keeping it simple, please) and break it down for the balance of their term (the detailed part)?

In effect, start farther out and work backward to move forward.

This departure from established protocol would mean, of course, going outside this Council’s comfort zone.

comfort zone caution

Despite their long tenure together, this group of seven hasn’t left a signature mark yet on Burlington’s canvas.

They tend to tread quietly and safely with governing the City’s business, delaying or avoiding the ‘big’ decisions (even when it’s easy, such as establishing a Code of Conduct for Council).

Government rarely leads. Government tends to react, not initiate or innovate.

Time to change in this case, consistent with other substantive changes that have happened and are transforming our great community in healthy ways.

It might mean relying less on external consultants, and not getting bogged down by internal staff reports. This would be Council making truly bold and ‘big’ decisions after listening directly to constituents – and, hopefully, articulating a clear and collective vision of future Burlington.

Or, will this Council pass the opportunity by?

4 thoughts on “Leadership stuck in neutral?

  1. Nice post Brian. I continue to share my belief that Burlington should set a unified goal of “Canada’s Healthiest Community” (or something similar), focusing on all aspects of health – mental, physical, spiritual, environmental, social an financial. Encouraging and inspiring a community to come together in a stated common vision would lead to great results. Working together as community would improve the overall health of all, and leave Burlington as an inspiration for other cities across Canada.

    Ahhh, if we only have the courage to put a stake in the sand and wave our flags to support it.

    Just sayin’.

  2. Brian, thanks for your comments.
    I agree with much of what you have said. Burlington has basically been “stuck in neutral” for the past two years.

    First, there have been too many delays in important decision making. It’s almost as if Council has been looking for excuses to avoid the tough calls, especially related to intensification. It started with the need to recruit a new City Manager, then there was the election, then it was a delay while the new City Manager got oriented, then it was the fact that the strategic plan was not done, then it was the need for more research, and on and on. One excuse after another.

    Second, an unfortunate mentality has evolved at City Hall that suggests “thou shalt not decide anything that might upset anyone.” This must stop. We can’t govern properly if we are constantly pandering to the disappointed, the angry, the worried, those with political aspirations and the columnists. Yes, we must listen to those with concerns, but we must govern with the long term interests of the majority as our primary goal.

    Finally, the news media needs to pay more attention. I don’t mean the gossip columnists (you know who I’m talking about) – I mean the legitimate news media. They need to spend more time at City Hall analyzing the performance of Council and the state of the City. They need to stop promoting the “activity” of some members of Council and instead focus on the “achievements” of others, giving credit where it is due.

    Brian, Burlington is a great City.
    I am confident that Council will emerge from its current funk, but with just over 2 years left until the start of the next election year, I worry that time is running out for leadership, action and firm decision making.

    Councillor Rick Craven

    • Maybe if Council could make some decisions news media would pay attention . Kudos to small group of Councillors who elicit discussion ,sorry Rick your not on that list As a taxpayer i see nothing wrong with Councillors promoting the city or raising ideas . Other Councillors should pay attention instead of bashing their colleagues . New age of thinking these days is the way to go in a world of social media . Burlington is growing and we need to start thinking long term ,we can’t hang on to that small town feel much longer . Let’s start by Council actually making decisions and not relying on high priced out of town City Managers . Council was elected to do so ………………………

    • When Rick Craven talks about gossip columnists he refers to the Gazette – specifically to a piece we wrote when he asked the city hall security guard to escort him to his car – which was 15 yards away – because we was worried about his personal safety – Beachway residents were quite prepared to tar and feather the man for the way he treated their efforts to save their homes.
      There was a time when the publisher of the Gazette would lunch with Craven – we each paid for our own portions – during which time Craven was malicious in his comments about some of his constituents.
      Then there was the occasion when Craven took a very serious interest in running for the provincial legislature – he met with Sandra Pupatello and would have taken a shot at the provincial seat because he was certain he could beat Jane McKenna.

      When it comes to gossip – Rick Craven is a master – but he doesn’t have the guts to say very much publicly. The Gazette has much to say about Craven that is positive – the role of media is to first show up and record – which the Post certainly doesn’t do, then to be consistent in their observations. The publisher of the Gazette has missed two council meetings since October of 2010 – that might be better record than Craven’s.

      The objective is to report and give the public an opportunity to hold their elected officials to account. To see Craven at his nastiest best is to watch the Council meeting of December 18th, 2014. Disgraceful – absolutely and totally disgraceful – and there is no gossip in that.

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