An appraisal of the three Council members and the Mayor. How are they doing as they near the end of their first year in office.

Three new council members were elected to office just over a year ago and one former  Council member got elected as Mayor.  In this feature we look at how each of the four has done during their first year in office.  We`ve left comment on the three “old timers”; Councillors, Taylor, Dennison and Craven to the mid-point of this term of office.

Our Burlington has attended literally every Council and Council Committee meeting; the only media in Burlington to do so.  We have watched and listened as the new members ‘learned the ropes’ and developed their unique style. Here is what we observed.

By Pepper Parr

A year ago they were wondering which office they would get and waiting for December 1st to arrive so they could assume office as members of  Burlington City Council.  Marianne Meed Ward had beaten Peter Thoem for the Ward 2 seat, Blair Lancaster had beaten back Mark Carr for the Ward 6 seat and Paul Sharman, to the surprise of many,  came out on top of a list of five candidates for the Ward 5 seat.

Rick Goldring was elected Mayor; but that was more Cam Jackson losing than Goldring winning.

Councillor Sharman with his back to the camera faces off with Councillor Meed Ward at a Strategic Planning session. Each councillor was new to municipal politics and each brought different personalities and styles to the job. They both add to the colour and flavour of Council

The most exciting race was Mead Ward – not that it was close, but exciting because of the expectation attached to her candidacy.  She was forward, brassy and had attached herself to two issues that were wrapped around each other – saving the waterfront from developers and resolving the Pier issue.  She was supported heavily by the Save our Waterfront association – served as head of that organization during the election, and then quietly threw it under the bus rarely to be heard from again.  An action voters want to keep in mind, when Mead Ward declares her candidacy for Mayor of the city – and she will declare that candidacy at some point.  At her peril in 2014 with better prospects in 2020.

Mead Ward fully expected to win her race, but she didn`t let up for a moment and when the votes were counted, she pulled out her Agenda and carefully set her sights on the next rung of the political ladder she expects to climb

If the municipal election were held tomorrow Meed Ward would be back in faster than a slam dunk.  She is the noisiest council member, she pushes every limit there is and asks more questions than all the other council members combined.  She is seen as a real pain in the neck by both many council members and even more staff.  However, it is the platform she ran on – and she is doing everything she said she would do – and then some.

Her most impressive performance was when she asked for a recorded vote on a series of matters – there were six of them – before Council and she stood up all by herself and voted no each time.  Her fellow council members were beside themselves with anger – but Mead Ward was as proud as punch.  She wasn`t going to be pushed off her position by anyone.

While she is difficult –she is also effective and is making some differences that are evident and will soon be seen and appreciated by residents across the city.  She has brought about changes in the way development proposals are brought to the city and the manner in which they are processed by council committee.   No longer will a developer get away with putting forward a couple of dozen changes to a development and then have the changes brought back before a committee in as little as ten days.  Mead Ward has put a stop to that practice – something old timers Craven, Taylor and Dennison could have and should have done a long time ago.

Meed Ward is also changing the way Section 37 funds are spent.  A section 37 is a section of the Planning Act that allows a municipality to give a developer a larger amount of density than the Official Plan or a specific zoning by law allows in exchange for a benefit to the community a  developer will provide.  The practice in Burlington has been for the Planning Department to handle all the negotiations with the developer, usually in private meetings.  Meed Ward wanted that process opened up – wide open. She wants the community to be at the table when the value of the community benefit is determined and then also involved in deciding just what that community benefit will be.

Mead Ward runs a Community Advisory Council that is well run and very real – she listens to her constituents.  And she doesn’t draw just the rag tag people who have nothing else to do with their time.  She has raised the bar when it comes to communicating with her ward.

One sees a very “gung ho” Council member at her ward meetings.  For the first one she wanted it to be just perfect and laid on cupcakes, coffee and juices for those that attended.  City hall staff did get to her on that one and advised that kind of spending wasn’t in her budget.

Ward 2 Councillor Marianne Meed Ward made her presence known to Council well before her election to office, the city knew what they were getting and she has delivered on that promise.

Meed Ward, who brings a journalism background to her work, put together a Newsletter and made it available to everyone electronically and told anyone who didn’t have email to give her office a call and she would mail a copy to them.  She managed to use up her mailing budget the first month in office.  What we were seeing was an inexperienced but very committed Council member going the extra mile to communicate with her community.  She respects the people she represents and genuinely wants to represent their interests.

What was important was the way she interacted with her constituents and would tell them how much she loved her job.  And she does love the job.

What isn’t clear is if the Meed Ward followers are a “fan club” limited to a couple of hundred people or a following that is city wide.  She sees herself as a Councillor for the city – not just ward 2.  Other Council members would prefer that she tend to matters within her own borders and leave them to take care of problems in their ward.

Blair Lancaster has been the quietest of the three council members.  She doesn`t say much, tends to use the same phrases – best practices is her consistent clarion call.  Nothing surprising in her efforts so far – if anything a little on the disappointing side.  She doesn`t appear to go to bat for people in her ward who have issues that are before Council.

What Lancaster has done however is beef up the way this council handles conflicts of interest matters.  Lancaster owns a Spa in the downtown core that is professionally managed for her.  When there was a report on The Downtown Core initiative – and it wasn`t much more than an update – Lancaster left the Council horseshoe and sat in the public gallery.  We`ve not seen that done in the past year by this Council or the one that preceded it.

Blair Lancaster brings a soft approach to Council. Doesn't speak nearly as much as the other members. To early to tell if she is effective as the constituent level.

 

While Lancaster really didn`t have a conflict, she chose to take the position that while the conflict may not have been real it could have been seen to be real and she chose to stand aside and absent herself from the discussion and any vote taken.  Within a couple of weeks Councillor Dennison, for the first time that I can remember, recused himself from the discussion and any vote on a matter he had a conflict with. It was a very minor conflict.

When Lancaster chose to stand aside she raised the bar for every member on Council.   A needed action for any municipal council but that one contribution in itself won`t be enough to get Lancaster re-elected if the next municipal election were held tomorrow

Lancaster is strongest as a public spokesperson for the council.  She handled the microphone at the Escarpment meeting held at Mainway Arena very early in this term – and she was close to stellar.  She has the experience and the poise to handle large audiences and I suspect she would do very well even if a meeting got rowdy and out of hand.

Paul Sharman got himself elected on transit issues and the problems that challenged Sherwood Forest Park in his community.  He slid in between a host of very acceptable candidates and when he got to council it didn`t take him long to insert his brisk, sometimes loud, always very direct approach to matters into the workings of the Council.

He took on the General Managers and the Directors in a way they had not been taken on in some time – there were a couple of very bruising council committee sessions early in this term.  He stunned everyone when he called for a 0% tax increase and asked that staff return to their columns of numbers and come back with just that.  One could see senior city hall staff gulping when the proposal was put forward.

There was the memorable meeting, when he made it very clear to a General Manager that the office space Council members used on the ground floor level was not acceptable, and that Council members were to be allocated space that was more suited to people, who were after all the equivalent to a Board of Directors.  Staff soon saw that Paul Sharman didn’t take prisoners.

Council members now have space on the seventh floor where each has a spacious office with a window and a small conference room that is much different than the “bunker” they used to have to use on the ground floor.  The space was drab looking, had no daylight – it was embarrassing.  It looked more like a police interrogation room, than something city council members used for meetings.

Sharman has softened a little and now tends to talk intensely with the Mayor, in that small huddle council members go into, when they talk to each other with a meeting going on. Budget discussions for 2012 will begin soon and a Transit Master Plan is due to come forward soon – we will see then what, if any, change there has been in the way Sharman makes his point.

While Sharman is strong and direct – he hasn`t really done his homework on council procedures and is not a very effective chairman of the Budget and Corporate Services committee.  His Clerk has to bail him out too often.  That and support from his vice chair, John Taylor gets him through the procedural part of meetings.

Sharman had not been a resident of Burlington for all that long.  He moved to Burlington from Oakville, joined the Chamber of Commerce and got involved in their Political Action Committee, got onto the Board of the Shape Burlington Committee where he shook a number of people to their roots.  Declared his candidacy for Mayor in the 2010 election and when Goldring declared a few days later he withdrew the Mayoralty candidacy and filed papers to run in Ward 5 as a

If Councillor Sharman doesn't agree with what you are saying it doesn't take long to sense his displeasure. He wants people to get to the point and know what they are talking about - and have numbers to back up their statements..

Council member.   He is aggressive, direct and there is seldom any doubt as to where he is coming from.  He is not a strong constituency man but it didn’t take him long to get a firm grip on what the issues were.  He deals with problems better than he deals with people and brings a solid “business mind set” to what he does.

He is a bear when it comes to facts and figures and consistently goes after staff when the numbers presented to him look a little fishy. He has this ability to be seen as outraged when there are numbers that don’t add up.  City hall staff  have by now learned to go over data more carefully knowing that Sharman will catch anything that doesn’t appear to make sense and will make his views and feelings known at their expense.  It isn’t that staff is sloppy, but he has raised the standard and brought forward a much different level of reporting to Council.

Rick Gold surprised himself as much as anyone else, when he defeated then Mayor Cam Jackson. He needed a couple of months to get the feel of the job he now has and is proving to be a much more effective Mayor than his predecessor.  He just may be seen historically, as one of the best we have ever had.  While a politician he doesn`t seem to need the limelight.

He isn`t all that hands on; he doesn`t have to be all over an issue.  He speaks when he has something to say and is inevitably positive without sounding like some kind of a city booster.  He asks questions of staff for clarification.  He doesn`t put forward stunning or startling ideas.  With a year under his belt we are now getting some idea as to the kind of Mayor he is going to be.  He is using the power of his office to strike out on his own.

The environment has always been a Goldring concern and he pushes to keep that viewpoint on the agenda but he doesn’t always get his way.  He has bumped up against Council members who have been at the horseshoe much longer than he has, and has been outmaneuvered frequently during his first nine months.

One doesn`t get the sense that there is a strong, forceful personality at work; that he has to dominate.  That is not to suggest that he is weak.  He has a much more collaborative style, but when there are tough decisions to make he doesn’t shirk them for a second.  A former City Manager learned that lesson.  One slowly realizes that Rick Goldring has fashioned a council that works well together with each member having all the room they need to be their own person.  This mayor brings a sense of humour to the proceedings and while he doesn`t appear to require people to refer to him as Your Worship, the title he is entitled to during Council meetings, other council members have begun to use the honorific when addressing or referring to him.

What comes across again and again is the man’s basic sense of decency.  It is seen in the small personal gestures where he helps people out when they are making a delegation.  There was the memorable moment when a woman speaking to a Council Committee and got lost in her notes and wasn’t able to follow where the conversation was going.  The Mayor left his seat, gave the woman his copy of the document they were working from and picked up a new copy for himself.

Goldring created the Inspire event, a series of speakers he brought to the city to inform and educate citizens of Burlington on important issues.  Christopher Hume, the Toronto Star architect critic, had some scathing comments to make on the way the city was built and was very blunt about the manner in which he thought McMaster University had treated the city, when they built on the South Service Road instead of in the downtown core of the city. The comments had people in that audience cringing.

Goldring wants people in Burlington to hear points of view that are different and to expand the dialogue that takes place.  He doesn’t want a sense of insularity to take hold in the community.  The turn out at these events is small but it grows; too early to tell if it is having any impact.

Mayor Goldring pays attention, listens carefully and usually reads a room quite well. With some experience he now has a better feel for his job.

The wisest move Goldring made was to appoint Frank McKeown as his senior aide.  McKeown had filed papers to run in Ward 4 but withdrew when Brian Heagle filed his papers.  McKeown felt that he and Heagle would split the anti-Dennison vote.  Heagle then failed to actually run for office and Dennison was back at the Council table for another term.

When Goldring woke up as Mayor, he probably needed some time to think through what had happened to him.  But it didn’t take him very long to realize he needed to add some strength to his bench and asked McKeown to serve as his principle aide, while he learned the job.

There were some very mean, nasty remarks made by people at City Hall who should have known better about the nature of the relationship between the Mayor and his aide.  Wise people are smart enough to know what their strengths are and where they need help – and they then go and get that help.  Rick Goldring brought in a man with a strong understanding of organizational principles and an ability to see and understand the political realities that exist in Burlington.  He didn’t do the Mayor’s thinking for him but served as a solid sounding board for the Mayor.

McKeown’s job is now close to done – his time on the eighth floor is probably nearing an end.  There is no need to ask what the Mayor will do without Frank at his side; the transition that had to be made is now close to complete.

Goldring decided to run for the office of Mayor because he felt that his predecessor had developed a Council that was divisive and would only get worse.  It was perhaps an impulsive decision, we will never really know, but when Rick Goldring found he was Mayor, he dug down deep and did the job.

Rick Goldring may over time prove to be one of the best Mayors the city has ever had.  He is certainly a two term Mayor – would he serve for three ?

 

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