Commitment needed before committees

Glancing at a recent story on Victoria city council’s looming decision over the fate of its public advisory committees I took a moment...

Glancing at a recent story on Victoria city council’s looming decision over the fate of its public advisory committees (PAC), I took a moment to think back on the three years I spent on those committees to search for a reason — any reason — to craft an impassioned plea for their continued existence. It’s been a few days since then and I’m still coming up short.

Councillors, city staff and PAC members alike have noted that the committees, intended to be a sober second thought or pool of willing experts for council to draw upon, have become little more than a convenient dumping ground for eager political junkies and folks with an agenda to push. However, it wasn’t always this way.

A younger me was inspired to join up after hearing a former Victoria councillor wax poetic about the days when expert-packed advisory committees regularly had the ear of a council overwhelmed by 300-page agendas.

Skewing the odds and enraging the gambler in all of us, council seems divided 50/50 on whether to support a recommendation to abandon its PACs entirely. Not that it matters. When it comes to citizen engagement at city hall, the fate of a few committees is less important than the decisions that follow this one.

Since at least 2008, the city has recognized that its PACs, as noted in that year’s governance review, “did not seem to be considered of much value by council,” and were “infrequently consulted.” This means it’s been four years during which the city has failed to make these committees a useful part of public consultation. In the meantime, the city’s Official Community Plan update generated input from almost 6,000 residents, proving the value of engagement that has nothing to do with the potentially outdated PACs.

Neither of the city’s options guarantee success. The debacle of the Johnson Street Bridge project, during which the public was ignored and misinformed at every turn, clearly shows where project-based consultations can succumb to political bias, and the history of PACs proves they can still serve a purpose. What matters isn’t the method the city uses to talk to taxpayers. What matters is whether politics and laziness get the upper hand over transparency and the public’s right to a voice at city hall. M

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