Losing Sight Of The Issues: Birds, bowling, and bags: when city councils take on needless battles

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

Katie Mahoney has a “situation.” Someone in her community has a penchant for wildlife and, specifically, for feeding wildlife. This person’s bird-feed and nut offerings have attracted copious pigeons, squirrels and chipmunks to the neighbourhood, prompting residents to complain about bird droppings contaminating play equipment and creatures literally gnawing on their homes.

“When the food runs out — I shouldn’t be laughing, it’s not funny — [the animals] start damaging people’s homes,” she said. “Critters are getting underneath the siding and into the insulation, causing external damage. If you like having critters and animals and birds in your yard, that’s great. But it can start to impinge on other people’s property.”

That, and other stories like it, is why Ms. Mahoney and her fellow Mississauga, Ont., city councillors devoted time this summer to passing a bylaw restricting the number of bird feeders on private residential property to three. But three, it turns out, might not be the right number, so council is now revisiting the bird-feeder bylaw. “What if you have a big lawn?” Ms. Mahoney asked. And perhaps the bylaw should be more specific, geographically speaking. “How far from a lot line?” Ms. Mahoney said.

The council has also asked the city to do a “feasibility study” on banning minors from buying supplies that could be used for graffiti, while the matter of banning minors from tanning beds was settled in September (it passed).

City councils and municipal staff across the country are today deliberating or have already settled these kinds of civic minutiae — from geese feces in New Brunswick’s Town of Nackawic, to a matter Brampton, Ont., city council labeled “hanging laundry outdoors without the use of clotheslines,” to a Calgary motion for a “plain language policy” aimed at stemming the use of jargon and abbreviations in city communications, to a city-run “bowling service” in Vancouver ( “But what is the supply/demand for bowling? We need to answer that,” one city councillor asked at a recent meeting).

Councillors have also spent time debating and voting on matters they have no power to actually address, whether it be banning shark-fin soup, opposing the Iraq War, or ending the NHL lockout — just this week, a Vancouver city councillor put forward a motion to write a letter to the NHL and the players’ association urging them to end the standoff (it passed).

“Councils have gotten involved in things they were never intended to be doing and they’ve lost focus of their core roles,” said Peter McCaffrey, a policy analyst at the Saskatchewan-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy. “As soon as you have [governments] trying to get into minor, localized issues, you inherently get into a nanny-state situation. It’s not the role of the city to say where people can put a bird feeder. That should be up to the property owner or the community to sort out.”

Certainly, quirky motions do not necessarily dominate a council’s agenda — although they can and have. And certainly city councillors are in a unique position to take on hyper-local challenges. But at a time when infrastructure is crumbling, transit commutes are hindering economic productivity and city labour costs are soaring, should Canada’s city halls ponder issues that bear little, if any, impact on the city’s long-term or even immediate success?

“City halls are paying attention to the things they can fix and are trying to put off serious debate about things they’re either uncertain about or find too complicated,” said Christopher Wilson, a senior research fellow with the University of Ottawa’s Centre on Governance. “It’s almost like procrastination — deal with the little things and then one of these days maybe we’ll get around to tackling that really big problem.”

Halifax is today wrestling with a soaring pension-fund deficit, when three years ago it banned bottled water at City Hall and even considered expanding the ban to include other bottled beverages, such as juice and pop. Vancouver has one of the country’s top three longest commute times, according to a Statistics Canada survey, and yet councillors are busying themselves with talk of a bowling service. The Town of Nackawic is in the midst of trying to understand just how bad its infrastructure situation is, but as recently as October it was still discussing geese–more than a year after it gained federal approval for a cull.

Toronto city council spent untold hours over the course of more than three years discussing plastic bags — first a fee, then a ban and then a ban-reversal — only to learn it likely has no jurisdiction over the issue anyhow. All the while, the city’s Gardiner Expressway — a key artery that links downtown Toronto with its western suburbs — is shedding chunks of concrete onto traffic lanes below and city engineers said this week the roadway has just six years to live. Council is finally set to debate the future of the Gardiner at a January budget meeting, when it considers spending $505-million over the next decade on major repairs.

“We have crumbling infrastructure and governments that cry poverty because they can’t set their priorities,” said Derek Fildebrandt, the Alberta director for the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, arguing that, for example, the funding of a new NHL arena has wrongly dominated Edmonton city council’s attention. “These side issues — either ones that over-reach or under-reach– are distracting them.”

This is not, of course, entirely new. In 2003, Vancouver’s city council voted to formally oppose any Canadian involvement in the Iraq War (unless, according to the motion, the military action is authorized by a legally valid resolution of the UN Security Council, jibes with Canadian laws and follows fulsome parliamentary debate). And former Toronto city councillor Kyle Rae said he remembers someone putting forward a motion

to boycott Burger King because a particular bank owned shares in the fast-food chain and the bank somehow supported Mike Harris’

provincial government, which oversaw Toronto’s controversial amalgamation.

“Some councillors don’t have the judgment to say,

‘That’s superfluous,’ ” Mr. Rae said. “Sometimes council has a very

bad habit of spending very little thoughtful time on the complex and instead spend an awful lot of time on the simple.”

And with the advent of email, Ms. Mahoney said, councillors are more susceptible than ever to “wacky” resident-driven requests. As more and more voters unleash their personal concerns, she said councillors have to work harder at prioritizing issues or even step in to mediate and resolve things themselves.

She has, for example, tackled complaints about children playing ball-hockey on residential streets by reminding parents to supervise their children and make sure other people’s property is respected.

Nackawic town councillor Brian Toole said city councils have to face issues bubbling up from their community more than any other level of government, and councillors have a duty to address the issues that concern the voters who elected them in the first place.

“Council is like a family — it has to deal with everything,” he explained, offering Fredericton’s consideration of raising barnyard hens in low-density residential areas as an example.

The New Brunswick city has run two pilot projects over the past year and says it has not received any complaints, and in May it launched public consultations to discuss whether people should be allowed to keep a maximum of three egg-laying hens in their back yard for personal consumption. For people living in Fredericton, this is important, Mr. Toole said– some want to raise chickens, others do not want birds as neighbours.

In fact, the following municipalities have debated, deferred, allowed, or opposed motions regarding backyard hens:

– Calgary

– Toronto

– Winnipeg

– Vancouver

– Duncan, B.C.

– Hamilton, Ont.

– Kingston, Ont.

– Fredericton

Ms. Mahoney said voters

pay taxes and deserve to have their seemingly outlandish concerns acknowledged and in some cases addressed at the city level. But Mr. Fildebrandt, of the taxpayers federation, argued that cities have no business spending time and resources on anything but the essentials.

“Cities across the country are not sticking to their knitting,” he said. “You see politicians taking on things beyond their mandate because they want to feel important or because it will benefit them politically and, in other cases, taking on petty, silly issues because apparently they think they have nothing better to do.”