Council size a good hook to get into a deeper governance discussion
A couple of weeks ago my colleague, Jim Guy, wrote a thought-provoking column suggesting that a smaller regional municipal council may give us less ability to solve our own problems (Smaller Council Might Do Nothing for CBRM Except Further Thin the Ice, Feb. 3). While this could be debated, I ultimately believe Guy’s skepticism about a smaller council is unwarranted.
It is increasingly clear that citizens of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality are ill-served by the current structure of council.
A smaller council elected by district may not be the way to proceed; however, a smaller council elected at large, rather than by district, would be a bold move forward that has the potential to lead to better decision-making.
For instance, 10 councillors elected at large would enable council to take a truly regional perspective – a good first step in helping the region solve its ultimate problem. That ultimate problem is perpetual regional decline.
It must be said, however, that a smaller council with a regional perspective could not accomplish much without the proper resources. It is safe to say that the debate about the size of council is really the beginning of a debate about more substantial governance reform.
CBRM, and in fact the whole island of Cape Breton, lacks the necessary governance structure conducive to developing a vibrant region. Governance can be defined as the ability to make and implement the decisions to truly establish, in the words of New Dawn Enterprises, a self-reliant people in a vibrant community.
The decline of the region has been so steady that it seems almost natural. CBRM has not experienced population growth in my lifetime and the unyielding decline is projected to continue. The statistical reality is so sobering and the bad news so unrelenting that it often loses the power to shock. Each census period, the region is once again reminded of the seemingly impossible dream of establishing a vibrant community.
It does seem for that dream to become a reality the governance options available to the community will have to be vetted. It was nearly seven years ago that Wade Locke and Stephen Tomblin released their discussion paper: Good Governance, a Necessary But Not Sufficient Condition for Facilitating Economic Vibrancy in a Peripheral Region: Cape Breton as a Case Study. We as a community have still not had a full debate about governance.
In the conclusion to that study, the authors noted that “ this report will have been successful if it stimulates informed and cooperative discussions on the pros and cons of various governance issues, which, in turn evolve into a new vision for Cape Breton that was not even considered in this study.”
While CBRM staff seems to realize the need for an informed and co-operative discussion on governance issues, council as a body has seemed incapable of grasping that reality. Councillors shy away from the debate each time they have an opportunity to embrace it. Council had a golden opportunity to have that discussion last September when staff presented a discussion paper on the Integrated Community Sustainability Plan. That paper discussed governance issues but council rejected it without any discussion.
That rejection was hasty, and it remains unclear whether council believes governance issues need to be discussed.
If we are not ready at least to debate governance reform openly, let us have the courage to plan for and admit the eventual reality. If the present course continues, the community should at least be aware of where the “natural bot- tom” is.
Many will admit that it is likely the population of CBRM will have fallen below 100,000 when the next census is reported. Thus the question that must be asked is: Where will the population stand in 20 years if the present course is continued? Continued decline is not inevitable, but growth and governance reform are inexorably linked.
Until our community embraces co-operative discussions on governance issues we will continue to experience decline. Discussions on new models of governance will lead to a new vision for CBRM. Debating council size is but the tip of the governance iceberg, but is seems as good a place as any to start.