Our local councillors, most of them citizen legislators, generally find their work driven by two realities:

1) today’s news — be it natural disaster, a rash of graffiti, or a bunch of citizens upset about some neighborhood micro-issue; or,

2) the priorities and agendas of the professional staff, who are often driven in turn by yesterday’s priorities, now codified into meticulous official planning processes and checklists. “Tick the box, Councillor, so we can move on.”

But what about getting ahead of tomorrow’s issues and priorities. That’s the province of strategic planning, an area that tends to get crowded out and neglected.

The Hastings, Napier and HB Regional Councils have each embarked on exercises aimed at introducing some manner of strategic thinking into their workings.

In Hastings, Mayor Yule last Thursday launched his “sustainability” initiative, which will involve both Council and interested citizens. BayBuzz commented on this project.

In Napier, a Strategic Planning Committee has been created, chaired by Councillor John Cocking. Its mandate includes “in particular, the issue of sustainability and the implications that will have on the future direction and operations of the Council.” Its first meeting was rather perfunctory, so we’ll have to wait and see what impact this committee will have.

At the HBRC, Councillor Alan Dick has championed the creation of an “indicative Work Plan” for the Council, a process he described to BayBuzz in a recent interview.

Sounds dry as toast at first blush. But what this really amounts to, as Councillor Dick says, is “making the Council more democratic” by enabling the elected representatives to get ahead of the curve, voice their collective aspirations for the coming term, and drive their work priorities accordingly.

The Work Plan will certainly include projects and milestones that the Council must address because of existing plans and statutory requirements. Rest assured the staff will flag these … they’re preparing the first draft.

But more importantly to Councillor Dick, as the Councillors weigh in, the Work Plan will surface and give priority to more future-oriented policy development and problem-solving. Potential issues he mentioned (not representing them necessarily as his own) include water quality and supply, air standards, preservation of open space, and response to climate change.

What BayBuzz likes about this process, apart from its forward-looking “big picture” orientation, is the potential it provides for the Council, as a whole, to say clearly to the public: “These are the very top 3 or 4 priorities this Council will address in the coming term, and voters should judge us accordingly in three years.” As Councillor Dick puts it, “For the first time, the public will have a scorecard.”

We also like the opportunity this process presents for the elected Councillors — if they dare — to remind the Council bureaucracy who is in charge. Councillor Dick observed that a council consciously defining its own work plan might involve “some shift in the power balance from the executive team to the elected members.” That said, he does not view the initiative in adversarial terms, emphasizing his confidence that CEO Newman would welcome a more strategic role for the Councillors.

Although BayBuzz has no bone to pick with CEO Newman on the matter, we’re instinctively skeptical.

When we actually see a “power shift” from staff to councillors on any council, then we’ll believe it!


P.S. My idea of HBRC councillors setting their own priorities would be
for the group of them to go off somewhere (unchaperoned by staff),
have a few beers, and hammer out an agenda based on their own knowledge of the issues and sense of their political mandate. Priority-setting is a political function to be done by those elected to do the job. Then invite the staff to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s”.

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