Life can get pretty complicated and frayed, especially around this busy time of year.
The path forward isn’t always clear, but time still marches on (often much too quickly).
Nevertheless, as 2016 nears its end, local residents seem to be in step about one thing.
Life in Burlington has changed, and it continues to change at an unrelenting pace. Of course, that change can be good or bad!
Your view may be swayed by when and where you’re asked.
You could be stuck in traffic with a case of indigestion from New Street’s road diet – or enjoying a calming stroll around one of Ward 4’s serene neighbourhoods.
Locally, we have much to appreciate and anticipate; and other things to complain and worry about. Skillful observers and communicators like Terry Cooke manage to cut through all that chatter about change – often with the turn of a phrase….
“Long-term change takes time”.
That powerfully blunt insight is taken from a recent message delivered by Terry as President and CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation (HCF).
He took the pulse of HCF’s current strategic plan. It got a thumbs-up from supporters.
I wonder how his questions to gauge HCF’s progress might apply to Burlington, and how citizens would respond.
Like HCF or any other community-based organization, City Hall is a place which should be building community with a long-term focus and discipline.
1) How is our long-term planning? How are we actually doing right now?
2) Does City Hall understand our evolving community needs and priorities?
3) Is our current “Group of Seven” Council setting the right direction, goals and flagging course corrections for over 175,000 people?
Often, though, one simple question will produce a profoundly clear answer.
And who doesn’t want clarity at times like this?
As my holiday gift, here’s your chance to experience clarity, in 3 seconds or less….
There was also a municipal election in Burlington 25 years ago – click on the photo below to see what Council looked like “back in the day”…
Did you count the number of people around that table (yes, that number includes the same John Taylor who’s still there)?
Seventeen (17) people for a population of less than 130,000 in 1991.
It’s only seven (7) people now – for a population in excess of 175,000 in 2016!!
How does that measure up today with our neighbours in Halton?
Oakville? 13 for more than 180,000. Milton? 9 for more than 100,000 (and rising). Halton Hills? 11 for more than 60,000.
How about other nearby small cities?
Guelph? 13 for more than 120,000. Cambridge? 9 for more than 130,000. Brantford? 11 for more than 95,000.
Looking eastward, there are places like Kingston with 13 for more than 125,000, and Cornwall with 11 for more than 45,000. Another waterfront community, Cobourg, has 7 just like Burlington – however, their population is less than 20,000.
I could go on. You get my point.
Today’s interconnected world is much faster, more complex and more demanding than in 1991.
Life has changed dramatically. Population density, traffic congestion and other troubling issues in the GTHA bubble are bursting.
While we live in a beautiful city and region, fundamental problems seeking real solutions and strong leadership can be found nearly everywhere.
The decrease in Council’s size was a well-intentioned move in the right direction. Regrettably, that pendulum swung too far.
Council fatigue has firmly settled in.
A telling example is how weary and wary our Mayor and Councillors appear at Council meetings. Who can blame them?
In fairness, who could properly get through all of the reading materials thrown at them (whether paper or electronic), investigate all of the truly important matters (after filtering through the truly less important ones), and genuinely listen to their constituents (as a reminder, improved civic engagement was the rallying cry when this Council was first elected in 2010)?
No wonder Council members often have their heads down, relying heavily on staff reports (is it an unwillingness to challenge them, or lack of preparation?) and rarely looking or standing up to offer strikingly innovative or breakthrough ideas.
Risk-takers? Not this group.
Getting into the weeds is a comfy way to hide in plain sight, pretty much as long as you want – until the next election.
I wrote last year about how this Council is seemingly “stuck in neutral”, and nothing much has changed since then (their long-overdue Strategic Plan eventually passed in April, sadly in line with Council’s previously limp and lengthy versions)….
Visionary and bold do not describe this Council. Caretaking seems more appropriate.
To be clear, Council’s work is not easy or straightforward, nor is it restricted to Council chambers.
There’s also the incredible time and energy drains of dealing with cats getting caught in trees, ribbons getting cut, photos getting taken, calls getting made, emails getting returned and getting to countless meetings and events.
Not to mention constant public pressure, as Council goes about their work.
Having said that, though, there’s really not much in the way of public scrutiny. Local media is virtually non-existent in Burlington, and it infrequently provides actual in-depth news reporting or analysis anyway.
It’s exhausting merely to try to visualize Council’s unrelenting work schedule, and the personal sacrifices involved, especially for a completely undersized team with an overwhelming to-do list.
Council lives with that reality.
Despite Council’s best efforts, have you noticed that public discontent keeps bubbling to the surface lately, replacing our usual general disengagement or disinterest with local matters? And we’re not talking about the Pier anymore.
Citizens seem increasingly frustrated with and anxious about Council – with big and small tipping points.
Unwarranted road diets, the shadow cast by the unrelenting threat and pace of new highrises by the waterfront, the City terminating the core group of seniors volunteering at the Seniors Centre, the City’s shortsighted selling of public waterfront lands to private interests, and more.
It’s no surprise that one natural conclusion and overriding factor can explain, in large part, why this Council gets such unfavourable or unenthusiastic reviews, and why it has seemingly been so unproductive and uninspiring despite 6 long years together. We’re talking about burnout.
It’s been 25 years in the making.
Why expect any Council to excel when they’re always faced with too little time and far too many demands?
Increasing the size of Council is inevitable, and would represent an important step and signal to reenergize Council as part of a long-overdue governance review (e.g. Council isn’t leading by example when a comprehensive Code of Conduct for City Staff doesn’t apply to them, and their own minimalist code is inadequate and outdated).
The potential and promise for better decision-making would be the most tantalizing outcome.
With a larger group, there’s real opportunity to elect a more dynamic, inclusive and representative Council for an evolving Burlington – hopefully, more diverse backgrounds and more progressive thinking will be brought to the table as a result.
It’s time to cleanse the stale air of a tired “small club” environment, and breathe new life into a modern Council to help it build an even greater community for the longer term.
That’s a compelling picture. Is it worth the risk of investing in a few more elected people to govern our city better?
Consider the alternative of maintaining the status quo and expecting a different return on that investment.
To create a healthier culture, you need to get at the root of the problem, not merely trim around the edges.
A change to the size of Council would be at the centre of structural changes that will make a difference.
Drawing new lines for Wards is a related burning issue too.
For example: Councillor Jack Dennison presides over Ward 4 – basically, it’s a small town with a population greater than places like Cobourg which throw a lot more bodies at governing (see above). It spans both sides of the highway, involving very different and divergent priorities to try to represent well.
But that’s for another day, and another post!
For the moment, let’s resist taking too deep a dive into the important details.
Such as how many Councillors should be at-large (vs. representing specific Wards), acknowledging that not everyone would still be on both Burlington and Halton Councils.
Or, and these are very substantive considerations, if all or some of the elected positions should be considered full-time or part-time, and how much each Council member should be paid under the new regime.
Where there’s a will, there will be a way.
The new Strategic Plan trumpets “GROW BOLD”, as Council seeks to lead Burlington into the future. Will this Council itself “GROW BOLD”, and be wise enough, to pursue increasing its size before the 2018 election?
To be clear, there’s no magical or optimal number.
Is it 9 or 10? Maybe something closer to 13 like in Oakville?
7 is definitely not the right number. Not anymore. It doesn’t work well in 2016 – and won’t for the next 25 years.
What do you think?
Here’s a 3-SECOND POLL to spark conversations, and help size up how Burlington feels about Council’s size….
“Pepper succeeded at achieving his main objective of narrowing the information gap between City Hall and citizens. For that, Burlington owes him much. Thank you, Pepper, and congratulations for a truly remarkable achievement.”
Two years later, that tribute to his valuable role as a dedicated volunteer and community observer still rings true, and louder.
This isn’t another CHCH TV closing up shop, then re-opening with reduced staff and a new focus. Pepper is the Gazette.
Perhaps, the Gazette will rise yet again.
But is this another hiatus? Or, is it a much-deserved retirement?
Will someone else pick up the Gazette’s torch?
Time will tell. And I’m confident Pepper will too.
*** UPDATE *** After posting the above, and as expected, Pepper revealed what was behind his decision to shut down the Gazette….
The most important 12 months in Burlington’s 142 years of existence.
Who’s led us down that path? The Mayor? Council? Good guesses, but you’re wrong.
It’s this person.
While he may look like another mild-mannered citizen out for a walk, his influence on our city could be invaluable, and lasting.
One more hint. In this photo, it’s no coincidence he’s cooking something with our Mayor, and at his right hand.
Say hello to James Ridge.
On the job as Burlington’s City Manager, and working below the public radar, since March 2015.
That low profile shouldn’t continue, as Council shifts into high gear now to finalize and approve a new (and overdue) 25-year Strategic Plan .
I offered the following background and prediction in this blog for last year….
“….since 2010, there’s been 3 City Managers (as shown below – can you identify more than one?) plus 1 to follow!
Of all the people in Burlington to watch in 2015, my pick is the next City Manager. That person will play a pivotal role in what happens, and how things move forward at City Hall during this critical time in our city’s history.
In addition to other qualities he/she brings to the corridors of power there, let’s hope he/she works productively with Council – and stays for at least one or two terms of Council, especially with a new Strategic Plan coming soon.”
Were you watching? Maybe you read about him.
When interviewed by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, James Ridge made a revealing confession.
He’s “a bit obsessed with doing better than a slogan-on-a-wall strategic plan” and wants a “compelling and achievable plan to guide the city for the next 25 years“.
Uh, James, don’t you know Burlington only puts out Strategic Plans covering a Council’s current term of office, filled with sweet-sounding generalities?
So what happened? His influence and obsession helped change this cover page….
to this one (note the years)….
No easy accomplishment – considering this is the same Council which, like its predecessors, drove forward by flipping on cruise control and belching out another cloudy short-term Strategic Plan in 2011.
Personally, I happily applaud this unexpected decision and new focus, which I most recently called/hoped for in this post….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
As summer cools down, and Burlington gets back to business as usual, it feels like the right time to warm things up with a rant.
Many of us are focussed on the economic turmoil in Greece, China and elsewhere. The federal election is making us stare into the abyss of a prolonged Canadian recession.
So let’s pause to look within. Let’s talk about our local economy.
How’s it look to you?
To assist, click on the following map – and envision the current stores, offices and industrial-commercial-institutional buildings…..
On a positive note, there seems to be roughly the same number of businesses here now, as existed a few years ago. Maybe even two decades ago.
On a negative note, repeat the last sentence.
Where’s the growth?
Why is there so much un(der)developed non-residential land, including along what City Hall likes to call the “Prosperity Corridor” (click on the photo below)?
And what about the re-invented and re-energized Burlington Economic Development Corporation leading the charge for change?
Before I try to respond to those questions, we should start with BEDC’s business partner and primary funding source, the City of Burlington.
City Hall has a lot on its plate.
Having said that (and sorry for making you groan about the photo), a menu of long-term priorities is relatively short.
It basically includes two I‘s – Intensification and Infrastructure.
Add one AH – Affordable Housing.
However, I believe the top priority and weakness to address for our future is, as you’ve probably guessed, ED (not the medical condition) – Economic Development.
That term is really code for job creation.
We need to intentionally target and bring in BIG business, those with 50 or more employees.
A big-business-centred approach broadens the entire tax base in significant ways. It will help pay for and support so many other short and long-term needs locally. It will also attract smaller businesses, and benefit those with roots already here to grow.
At present, a meagre 6% of employers in Burlington have 50 or more employees, while a whopping 65% of business establishments are self-employed.
Keep in mind too, non-residential properties cost much less than residential for a municipality to service. Healthy margin, healthier bottom line.
Dive into a lot of data, bring out lovely charts and brochures. No matter how you slice and dice it, BIG business will be the BIG difference-maker for Burlington.
As a longtime business leader asked me this week, “When was the last time a really big business came to Burlington?”
Well, it was a long time ago (hint: the name begins with “G”, and you can email your answer to this quiz to firstname.lastname@example.org).
None of this big-game hunting will be easy or quick!
No doubt, though, time is of the essence. We’re arriving late to the modern ED game.
After enduring a long no-growth drought, and falling behind our GTHA neighbours, the pump needs to get primed immediately.
Success will depend largely on the leadership, effectiveness and relationship of BEDC and City Hall – including how they collaborate with the Burlington Chamber of Commerce to advocate for our community as a premium destination for businesses.
A few details about how that synergy might work in the long run, despite some initial hurdles to get over…..
*** BEDC ***
As mentioned earlier, this is an organization with a renewed sense of purpose.
Regrettably, BEDC is off to a slow start after an extensive study of its past problems, followed by a 2014 relaunch (the vision statement claims BEDC will “operate at the speed of business“, which is great if you get paid by the hour!).
It’s been weak at communicating (when was the last time you heard or saw anything from BEDC?). And its optics are not helpful either.
That is, while preaching change, inclusivity and transparency at the “new” BEDC, some initial decisions suggested otherwise.
An 11-person Board was selected with only 2 female directors (apparently BEDC is going with a new “old boys club” model) – not to mention that several directors, including the Chair, don’t work in this city; the website provides scant to no information about the corporation (no particulars about its corporate relationship to the City, no listing of all of the executive officers, no profiles about directors other than job titles, no indication if directors are volunteering or paid (as originally proposed), etc.); and 4 out of the 11 directors are employed by the City.
That last observation means City Hall has a strong voice at BEDC’s table, wielding a weighty 36% of the vote. Political and business types usually have very different natures and agendas, which can be counterproductive in a boardroom setting.
Perhaps, the Board’s composition will lighten up on the number of City folk, as it evolves over time.
In terms of looking forward, BEDC is compiling “Burlington Vision 2025”. Here’s the latest on that front….
While visioning is an important exercise and guide, this due diligence process could lead to paralysis-by-analysis (the consultant’s dense “economic baseline” report alone would be enough), and blurry goals.
But it’s still early days.
With his entrepreneurial drive and impressive skills, new Executive Director, Frank McKeown, seems the right kind of take-charge leader to grab hold of BEDC’s steering wheel, once the accelerator is pressed down. A shift in gears can’t come too soon.
*** CITY HALL ***
Can the current administration foster an improved local environment for business?
To start, City Hall will need to better co-ordinate its efforts with both BEDC and the Burlington Chamber of Commerce to help cleanse and truly refresh our stagnant economic development pool.
Those groups must clearly define their roles to avoid duplication or conflict, and work closely together.
To that end, Council’s new “Strategic Plan 2015-2018” will need to embrace and fold in BEDC’s “Burlington Vision 2025“. Will the new City Manager, James Ridge, ensure that happens and position himself as a pro-business champion?
It will be interesting to find out what transpires later this year, when both documents are finalized and rolled out….