The Francis Report: Life in a Global Context, is a monthly column dealing with globally significant, locally relevant topics by Millstone columnist Arnie Francis,
Aside from municipal elections municipalities have set processes for citizen input: these include periodic public meetings, emails, phone calls, petitions, social media posts, research surveys and, most commonly, the “sub-committee” of a committee-of-the-whole of Council. Mississippi Mills is no exception. Go to the Town’s website (http://www.mississippimills.ca/townhall/committees.cfm) and you’ll find the following listing of sub-committees:
- Mississippi Mills Heritage (formerly LACAC)
- Environmental Advisory
- Almonte Daycare Advisory (no linked information)
- Library Board (no linked information)
- Police Services Board
- Mississippi Mills Accessibility Advisory
- Property Standards (no linked information)
- Residential Services Advisory (no linked information)
- Technical Advisory (no linked information)
- Community and Economic Development
These sub-committees have more volunteers than Council/staff members, yet seemingly good input produces no output. The Community and Economic Development Committee (CEDC) has some sharp business minds among the 7 volunteers and 3 council representatives, yet has been held back from defining a strategic vision by narrow politics. Then there’s the Environmental Advisory Committee. The EAC is made up of passionate and articulate friends of the environment, “to provide environmental advice, recommendations and information to Council”, but whose advice and recommendations the Town rarely accepts (e.g. the long-forgotten pesticides debate). The EAC exists to demonstrate the Town’s “good faith” on environmental issues. The Arts & Culture Advisory Committee is a committee of local cultural stars all but ignored by the Town until the Committee was recently able to secure third party funding for a cultural mapping project through the personal effort of a few volunteers, now abandoned. The Heritage Committee has a little different focus, with at least a part of its work relating to Parts IV and V of the Ontario Heritage Act. But again, the excellent volunteer work of mapping heritage assets has all but been ignored by the Town.
Am I getting this wrong? Town sub-committees don’t produce value for the larger community. While the input of citizen volunteers is sizeable, there’s really no one at the Town listening, taking notes or encouraging their effort. Try to find current minutes of these sub-committees on the Town’s website…
Other than perhaps the Police Services Board these sub-committees are a drain on volunteer resources, use taxpayer money, distract staff from their core duties and provide councillors yet another soapbox. But most importantly, these committees steal volunteers away from making a contribution to really important causes in the community.
I have been a committed volunteer for most of my adult life in each of my domiciles: “volunteering” equals “donation” -a gift freely given without return consideration. While my volunteerism is no different, and likely far less, than some of the superb volunteers we have in our community, I have come to wonder why I signed up to work on the Town’s Community and Economic Development Committee and became its Chair. After hundreds of hours of volunteer effort on the Community Conversation Session, on report writing, on development of a White Paper, on attending meetings with external and internal stakeholders, on presentation to a Queens University conference, the Town of Mississippi Mills “fired” me as a volunteer. In mid-April – ironically during Volunteer Appreciation Week – I got a letter from the Town telling me that my appointment to the CEDC had been “rescinded”. I was neither upset nor surprised by this petty action… I had known that Council had met secretly (in-camera) to comply with this request by staff and a certain “populist” Councillor. Council opted to seek my resignation (which I refused to give), or “rescind” my volunteer status, without the courtesy of asking for my view or giving me an explanation. Just to be clear, I had not acted in any despicable, criminal or anti-social way – I simply offered a different perspective to a politician’s vision of some staff’s capability for leadership, which is proving true. And all this in the course of an
Now don’t get me wrong. I chortle every time I think of this ridiculous Council action: it really is quite funny, in a pathetic, small-town sort of way! “Town fires volunteer!” I imagine it’s rather unique in any town, small or not.
But that’s not the issue. No, it’s not the bad manners, poor business etiquette, lack of due process, nothing like that. It’s not even the widespread bad reputation this town’s administration has so successfully nurtured for failing to appreciate its volunteers. Nope. What burns my butt is that municipal volunteerism has become a cynical “show and tell” of all the things our town purportedly does in the name of provincial expectations … and it’s totally fake. For that reason, I contend that these sub-committees completely squander volunteer effort, dishearten most participants and offer little contribution to the community at large. They misallocate limited funding to “pet” projects. They eat up valuable volunteer resources that could be used in organizations with a real need for volunteers. These committees should be disbanded. And if you’re thinking of answering the “want ad” to volunteer for these committees, ask yourself, “why?” Are there not other worthy causes that could use your talents, skills and dedication, and VALUE what you bring?
For the Town, there are options. For example, a non-profit corporation has already offered to provide cost-effective, cultural coordination for the creative sector across Mississippi Mills. Effective economic development planning can be done more meaningfully by an arms-length non-profit economic development agency, as has been seen in other Ontario municipalities. Environmental groups are developing and addressing critical issues on an as-needed basis (e.g. the “Your Mississippi” group addressing the dam project). And so on.
The Town and its administration have mismanaged citizen input and shown a disdain for the effort of volunteers over the last decade. It’s time for the Town to get out of the business of sub-committees and replace this embarrassingly useless structure with a more meaningful consultation process.