(Mayor Patricia Heintzman made 11 promises in her election ad and vowed to fulfill them in her first four months. An year later, I took stock of the situation and spoke to her. I found I could not give her more than 2.5 marks out of nine (two of her promises were not tangible enough to rate). When she seemed to be totally unaware of her promises, I decided not to remind her of the advertisement and see if she remembered it at any point during the conversation on the promises. I did not get any sign that she did. All I sensed was evasion and amnesia.)
By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Jan 24, 2016
Published: Jan 24, 2016
PROMISE: Amend the procedural bylaw to ensure Council is more open and inclusive to the public… it should not be intimidating for members of the public to speak with council.
At the top of the list of the Mayor’s promises was something she did manage to do, even if well after the four-month deadline she set for herself. The council passed a motion in May last year to amend the procedural bylaw to shift the order of things and to allow a council session outside the council chamber. Now, citizens can speak at the beginning and at the end as well.
“We shifted the order of things. We used to ask people to speak and made them wait for the whole meeting,” Heintzman said. It’s hard to measure the effects of these changes but where the Mayor could have done something more concrete if she was serious about her other promise about closed meetings was in fact in the procedural bylaw. But that part has been left untouched.
Curiously, the time allowed to speak to delegations has now been reduced from 10 to 5 minutes, although the Mayor says she is generous with it. “We reduced it to five minutes, although, have you ever seen me keep it to five minutes? We did it because we were getting so many requests to speak. We can’t have three hours of speaking. You have to get the business of the council done. If it’s longer than five, we generally put them to committee, and that gives us more freedom to allow floor time for people,” she said.
PROMISE: Post the Mayor’s meeting calendar online for everyone to see
The next promise was indeed the lowest-hanging fruit. Before the elections.
Everyone can see the calendar although it’s not posted monthly. In fact, the first time the schedule of Mayor’s meeting was posted online was in the middle of last year in June, well after the four-month deadline. But even then it did not continue to be in public. The last meeting schedule posted there was in August last year and then it was abruptly stopped.
Of course, the Mayor did meet people before June and after August but she certainly didn’t ensure all the meetings get posted online. Fulfilling another promise related to her agenda of openness and transparency such as reducing the number of closed-door meetings could be a complex issue, but how much time or effort could posting all meeting online could demand?
There was a perception that previous mayors didn’t share information with the council or the community and that also played a part in bringing Heintzman closer to the Mayor’s seat. But here she was unable to fulfill the most basic promise that could ensure openness and transparency.
However, now she plans to post the full calendar. Hopefully, the community will be able to see what their Mayor is up to in 2016.
PROMISE: Have Council’s first [of many] community conversations aka town hall meetings…we did not host one in the last term.
What could have stopped Mayor Heintzman from holding town hall meetings?
This is what she had to say: “I hate that expression, town hall meetings. I think town hall meetings are a 1950s way of communicating. I think there is a perception that council sits at the table and it’s about a particular issue and people get up and rant and rave. I can handle it either way, but if you want to be more productive and get ahead of solutions instead of just reacting to them you want to create the opportunity for that to happen all the time,” she says, totally unaware of what she had promised a year ago.
“I hate that expression, town hall meetings. I think town hall meetings are a 1950s way of communicating.”
In her bid to bring about a 2.0 open government, the Mayor seems to have forgotten that municipal tradition can play a crucial role in fostering openness. At the very least, it can’t be dismissed out of a personal whim.
In Squamish, town hall meetings have been and can be a great source of political accountability. In fact, it may well be the only occasion where the community gets a chance to grill the Mayor and the council when even senior officials are in attendance so that all the information is handy. If the Mayor was so contemptuous of this traditional yet empowering two-way dialogue, why did she make such a promise—and to hold not one but many town hall meetings?
If the Mayor thinks town hall meetings are a regressive, old-school mechanism, isn’t the council with a mayor too an old 50’s idea? At any rate, it defies logic for a politician to detest the very proposition that she herself made merely a year ago.
PROMISE: Implement a monthly shirtsleeve session of council with the community.
As I interviewed the Mayor, a part of me wanted the Mayor to abruptly realize I was asking her about the promises she had made merely a year ago. It’s not unusual for politicians to forget promises but you expect them to remember when they are prodded. No such luck here as I went to ask her about another unfulfilled promise.
Heintzman seems to have conflated her ‘Breakfast with the Mayor’ sessions with the idea of a shirtsleeve session which is an informal, relaxed meeting of councillors and the community. The Breakfast with the Mayor, which focusses on one given topic, is not a shirtsleeve session of the council with the community.
“Most of our committees act in a shirtsleeve session any way and anyone can speak and its roll up your sleeves and explore ideas type,” she said.
“I’ve had many many breakfast sessions…We’ve had many shirtsleeve sessions outside the council chamber just to engage with the public and we had a number of offsite public meetings, on different topics, LNG, Cheekeye fan. And certainly through the OCP process, they will happen more and more,” she said.
Some of these sessions, she added, were attended by some councillors.
“Not all of them, all at once, but variety of councillors have come to those, at the Mayor’s breakfast and stuff like that. We have had some with the students at the secondary school and we are brainstorming a world cafe with them in February,” she said. For a three-term councillor, it won’t be hard to know how difficult it can be to institutionalize a monthly session of the council with the community.
And why make a promise to hold a regular monthly session of the council if the committees can provide the opportunity, as the Mayor now seems to believe. “Most of our committees act in a shirtsleeve session any way and anyone can speak and its roll up your sleeves and explore ideas type,” she said.
At least the meetings are open, even though meeting with the public has its limitations, she feels. “And all of our meetings are much more open, there is only so much time and there is only so much capacity that our staff has to act on these things. We can’t have a meeting every day, once or twice a month is good.”
PROMISE: Reduce the amount of closed meetings and be more clear about the subject of closed meetings.
Before she was elected as the Mayor of Squamish, the words openness and transparency were more than just political buzzwords for her. It seemed that they were the very raison d’être of her public life, the principles that would govern her time as Mayor. “It’s time,” she proclaimed, “for a new kind of a Mayor.” When asked by the Vancouver Sun’s Brian Morton after the elections if openness and transparency were going to be her priority, she said “absolutely” and what she was really trying to do was to have a more inclusive process with committees and task forces. Enter Open Government 2.0.
Heintzman had promised that in the first four months of being a Mayor, with council on her side, she would reduce the amount of closed meetings and be more clear about the subject of such meetings.
But as I sat down with Mayor Heintzman recently to see if that has been done, I was in for a surprise. She told me the Mayor or the council could not be an agent of this change, even if they wanted to. This matter had been decided years ago by the province.
“We don’t have a choice, we have to go to camera, if we didn’t, we’d put the city and the citizens in a liability situation if we don’t.”
“The closed door is very prescribed. The council can’t close the door when they don’t want the public to listen to it. We have to very clearly say what it’s about and it’s generally land, legal, or labour issue, the three main things,” she told me.
She continued: “The way the legislation is set up and it’s there to protect the better interest of the community and it’s there to protect the individual, not council members. 99 per cent of the time we go into camera for labour-related issues and we have to state at the beginning the section within the act. We don’t have a choice, we have to go to camera, if we didn’t, we’d put the city and the citizens in a liability situation if we don’t.”
“The act clearly says what you can and can’t do in camera, and often, in camera, staff will inform us. With collective bargaining, it’s almost impossible to do that out of camera. For example, if there is a legal issue, you can talk about it in camera, but the whole other issue may be out of camera. We don’t have big agenda but some may take two hours because they are complicated and complex. But as soon as the conversation wanes, I go, that is open, can’t talk about that.”
Before I could ask her why she made an election promise to reduce closed meetings if she knew the act won’t allow for such a reduction, I had a sudden realisation: The Mayor was blissfully unaware of her own election promise and I decided to let her be.
The more she spoke, the more it became clear that she had completely forgotten the promises she was so eager to fulfill within the first four months as the Mayor.
What’s more, she thought that closed meeting was a non-story, one people liked to dig up for no specific purpose. “This is an old story that people say over and over again and it’s a non-story. We are actually very strict about what can and can’t and the ones we do close it for, we HAVE to, we have no choice, it’s legislated that we close. People love to make a story out of this but there is literally no story,” she said.
“This (closed meetings) is an old story that people say over and over again and it’s a non-story.”
Perhaps the Mayor was right.
There was no story here except a story that we are all familiar with: Politicians make promises and then they forget about them and in many cases do the exact reverse of what they had promised in their election platform.
Heintzman should have known better for she has been in our council for nine years, a long enough time to realize that closed-door meetings are legislated to be behind closed doors. So, what led to that promise: The ignorance of rules, an assumed naivety of voters or a wish to still find scope for openness?
Heintzman whetted my curiosity when she claimed that even though the closed doors were legislated, they were at a ‘bare minimum.’ I asked her if there had been any improvements for closed meetings compared to last year and she said she hoped so.
“I think so, I hope so, I’d hope so because we are trying to improve, there aren’t any…We are a whole bunch of individuals, there aren’t any caucuses that go off and that doesn’t happen. We try to be pretty collaborative and get the work done. People are always going to be suspicious, but look at other levels of government and they do 99 per cent of their work not in the public because they are party based, and they caucus out and that sort of thing. We don’t do that and all our decisions are made in the council chamber.”
Curious to find out if the Mayor’s hopes were not misplaced, I tallied the number of times the council went behind closed doors in 2015. When compared to the past few years, I was surprised to find that 2015, the year of the Mayor’s promise, had been the worst for closed meetings.
The council went behind closed doors as many as 56 times in 2015, compared to 42 times in 2014. The numbers show an upwards drift from 2011, but they reach their apogee last year. In 2011, for example, the council met behind closed door for 35 times. In 2012, that number went up to 39. In 2013, council went behind closed doors for 46 times. In 2014, the number stood at 42.
But if you believe our Mayor, she does try her best to ensure there is clarity over what goes in and what doesn’t go in a closed-door meeting. She did give one example when she managed to keep a meeting open.
“The provincial government, the environmental assessment office wanted to come to council just to give us a background of how they were going to deal with WLNG and just to outline the process. Staff came and said they’d like to put them on the closed agenda, but I said this can’t go into closed-door agenda. This is an open, provincial process and it should be done in the open. I was told because I have really opened up meetings to the audience members, they were afraid they would get 500 members of the public there, so they ended up not going because I won’t allow them to happen in camera. So, often, things would come and we will discuss why this is in camera, and okay, there is something very specific here under the chart that we can’t do in the closed door.”
PROMISE: Meet with every vacant landowner in the downtown.
By the time I asked the Mayor about this, my initial suspicion had been confirmed: She seemed to have forgotten everything about her poll promises. And yet, I hoped she would remember that she had promised to meet all vacant landowners in downtown Squamish in her first four months.
Revitalising downtown, after all, was one of her concerns when council adopted her motion in 2012 to study how Maple Ridge’s revitalisation program had worked. Most of the district’s reports spoke of revitalizing downtown so it seemed the logical place to start, she had said at the time. All that was needed was a list of all vacant downtown landowners to call.
But even this promise has went unfulfilled. A few vacant landowners I spoke to had yet to hear from the Mayor, or for that matter, anyone from the district of Squamish. And the mayor, clearly oblivious of her promise, isn’t sure of how many vacant landowners she has met. This was her response to how many vacant landowners she met in her year as the Mayor: “Some of them own multiple properties, I wouldn’t know, I don’t know, a handful. I don’t know. I met a couple of them, a number of the new ones I have met, and they are all just trying to figure out timing and when they are trying to get their projects done,” she said.
Developing land for residential or commercial purposes has its own challenges and it’s quite possible that a vacant landowner may have been convinced to vote for the Mayor after seeing her promise-laden ad. The Mayor often talks about public engagement but forgets that it’s a two-way street and it’s important to meet somewhere in the middle, especially when you are the one promising to do so.
PROMISE: Initiate discussion with Squamish Nation to finally resolve servicing agreements.
Heintzman also promised that she would initiate discussion with the First Nations to finally resolve servicing agreements. She has initiated discussions with the First Nations, although the servicing agreements have yet to be resolved because they are in negotiation with other municipalities.
“So, right now, they are in a service agreement negotiations with a number of municipalities and we have been waiting to finalise it with West Vancouver as they want to keep that as a template,” she said.
Call it a happenstance, but the day after I chatted with the Mayor, I was told by the Squamish Nation member Chris Lewis that the Nation and the District would be discussing the issue soon. He said the Mayor had initiated the discussions in 2015 but those discussions couldn’t proceed because they were focussing on servicing agreements with other municipalities.
“The timing is really good for your call as I just had a meeting with the mayor this morning, and we both committed to having discussions in the near future around servicing agreement. The nation has explained its position on how we would like to service agreement to be structured, fees for services. I just provided an additional copy to the mayor and her staff this morning,” Lewis said.
PROMISE: Set up a recreation committee so that user groups are steering that agenda.
Many recreation user groups feel having a district recreation committee is something that would be useful and is rather long overdue. From user fees to the use of field and ice rink to funding from the district and the province, a recreation committee would have given recreation users the perfect vehicle to resolve conflicts and find ways to share resources. The common complaint of communication breakdown between the staff and the users would have been better resolved if there was a dedicated council committee.
And the need for such a committee wasn’t lost on Heintzman, who promised before the elections she would “set up a recreation committee so that user groups are steering that agenda.”
More than a year after the elections, user groups are yet to steer that agenda, at least not in the sense Heintzman promised. In the meantime, the council has set up new committees such as housing task force and a digital strategy committee but the Mayor is still mulling over how best to keep her election promise.
“What we have talked about is, should there be a recreation committee or recreation commission that helps make those decisions and helps work with staff. Fundamentally, it comes down to council. It’s not like the city of Vancouver which has a completely separate elected park board who collect their own taxes, create their own budget separate from the City of Vancouver. Administratively, that doesn’t make sense from our point of view. We have talked about trying to get to the model whereby the citizens and the users are being much more involved in the day-to-day, overarching strategy. It’s already happening better. It has improved a lot and staff are really open in making sure that input is there. We haven’t set up a structure.”
While recreation user groups do get a chance to meet the director of recreation services, in the absence of a district recreation committee, their voices are rarely heard together. The Mayor, however, is still not sure if this is the way to go, despite making a promise to set up a recreation committee merely a year ago.
What new information does she have which makes her so unsure now, and what made her so sure before the elections?
“Well, I know that rec dept has their subcommittee and recreation users go and discuss and debate and they have user groups meeting with him (Tim Hoskin) all the time. There is pros and cons. Council is open to figuring out what the best governance model is there that doesn’t overtax or overburden our volunteers but makes it clear that there is a really clear conduit of communication and that decisions are made in fairness and inclusive.”
I think what the Mayor doesn’t seem to realize that volunteers won’t be overtaxed by being part of the committee. Rather, they would welcome the decision that would enable them to steer the agenda.
PROMISE: Infuse a can-do, client-based, solution-oriented empowering philosophy throughout your municipal organization… volunteers and community building organizations will then be able to focus their energies on their passions not on red tape.
STATUS: Too intangible to rate.
PROMISE: Initiate regular meetings with SLRD’s Area D Rep, Squamish Nation, Regional Mayor’s, Chair of the SLRD, MLA and MP.
STATUS: Partially fulfilled
It’s a question a lot of BC Mayors ask themselves: How can my voice be heard in the region, Victoria and Ottawa? That is what Mayor Heintzman seemed to have in mind when she promised she would hold regular meetings with SLRD Area D reps, Squamish Nation, Regional Mayors, SLRD chair, MLA and MP.
Mayor Heintzman certainly meets the Mayor of Pemberton, Lillooet and other local representatives through regular SLRD meetings, but when it comes to meeting the MLA and the MP on a regular basis, she seems to have once again made promises she couldn’t keep.
She says she talks to the MLA Jordan Sturdy quite often and meets him when she gets a chance, although there is nothing ‘regular’ about these meetings. “I speak regularly with the MLA. I get a chance to meet him and we will have two-hour conversations on the phone fairly regularly and we talk all the time,” she says.
While they do talk all the time over the phone, there has never been an official request from her office to set up regular meetings as she had promised. Had there been such a request, they would have worked on setting something up regularly, according to the MLA’s office.
“I know that they have a regular dialogue, the physical meetings of the entire group we aim to do those but…we will look at the calendar this year and align that with their availability as the Councillors have other businesses as well. Their council meetings are on Tuesday and in session. The MLA can’t be there on Tuesdays. He’s available all summers but some of them take breaks in summer. You can see where the scheduling comes up. So, regularly connecting, that is right. But….unless the Mayor of Squamish says to us, we want that, we have to have that and then we would look at that,” said Nicole Bentley, who works for MLA Sturdy.
Did the Mayor get a chance to meet the MP regularly? “Well, not a lot. We don’t meet nearly as much with the MP. In my year as Mayor, I didn’t meet very regularly with John Weston at all. We have so many issues on which we are in constant communications with the province. It’s not as likely to have as many issues with the federal government. There might be some marine stuff, coast guard, jurisdictional issues, and transportation.”
The previous MP John Weston says he met Heintzman on numerous occasions and found her regularly in attendance at community events and never had a problem reaching her nor did she have any issues in getting through to him. Weston said he wasn’t sure if he received any request to hold regular meetings with Heintzman but would have treated it as a priority.
“I can’t say for sure as that would have gone to my Scheduling Assistant. I can only say that we would have treated her as a priority, as I did for all locally elected officials.”
If it was easy to converse on inter-government issues on the phone, why did the Mayor promise an institutionalized framework of regular meetings in the first place?
PROMISE: Infuse and atmosphere of creativity, openness and determination in the Mayor’s office.
STATUS: Too intangible to rate.
Some people may not find many of these promises too significant. I might even agree with those who would say perhaps the Mayor could not fulfill them because she had more important things before her. Moreover, it is not uncommon for politicians to not keep their promises and even forget them.
But it was she who found them so important as to turn them into election promises and so urgent as to vow to fulfill them in her first four months. It was she who pitched for “a new kind of Mayor”.
One cannot reduce her whole year to her failure to fulfill these promises. Finalising the Oceanfront sale, creating a new digital strategy and enabling a smooth working of the Squamish Music festival, Heintzman has taken a few important steps in the year gone by. She is creative and energetic but she can’t afford to operate like a traditional politicians, making and breaking promises at whim, especially when many of her promises could have been fulfilled with little effort.
Our ukulele-playing mayor crooned a Rolling Stones song on her victory night: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find what you need.”
I hope she finds the energy and will to fulfill her old and new promises in 2016.