In 2019-20 I was invited to volunteer for a committee to look at improving the operation of advisory committees. We were told that we would work hand in hand with staff in the City Clerk’s office to draft staff recommendations based on public input. That is not what transpired after a two month process because a six month process, became a year long process that has now been delayed to distant point in the future. The full story of why can wait for another day. For now, here’s my delegation from last Thursday when the staff report ‘informed by’ our recommendations reached the committee stage.

The chair of the forgetably-named Corporate Services, Strategy, Risk and Accountability Committee, Councillor Rory Nisan, interrupted me five times, so I guess he didn’t like what I was saying. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether the interruptions were warranted or reflect a return to the traditional council-members’ outraged defence of their own and the city’s honour that we saw before 2018.

In fact, I was not criticizing any person. I was criticizing a process that involved a huge amount of work by volunteers ending with the least defensible staff recommendation of all – the status quo.

And believe me, it is the status quo, because while the staff report speaks of the clerk’s office doing this, and considering that, they could have done all of that without wasting anybody’s time for the last two years – the citizens who came to ‘action labs’, the committee members and staff who contributed to questionnaires and attended meetings, and above all the members of the citizen committee who made the mistake of thinking their opinion mattered.

Council later voted to adopt the staff report. Councillor Shawna Stolte was alone in stating that she supported most of the recommendations in our citizen recommendations, and moved an amendment that would have allowed for continued citizen input in the process of reestablishing advisory committees. It was defeated 6-1.

Delegation on Staff Report on Advisory Committee Review

I’m delegating today on the Advisory Committee Review process, and the recommendations being made by the City Clerk. 

Although I was part of the citizen committee that drafted recommendations that informed this report, I am delegating as an individual. These are my opinions only, and I am going to state things in much stronger terms than they would. But I put too much into this not to have my say. 

The whole committee considered delegating, but, without sharing reasons which are not mine to share, it would be fair to say there was doubt expressed as whether there was any point. If the implications of that statement don’t embarrass every person working at City Hall, I don’t know what will. 

I am also not here to criticize council, or any member of council. Council has had little opportunity to assess the recommendations the citizen committee provided apart from what can only be described as a farcical workshop that insulted us all.

I am not here to criticize the city clerk, or any single member of staff. The city clerk has come into this process late, and on looking at the mess he’d inherited took the traditional government solution of punting the whole thing into the long grass.

I am not even here to defend the recommendations made by the committee that I took part in, although I think they are good. I am definitely not here because I think council is obligated to do what we say. You’re not, and you have the votes to prove it.

I’m here to do two things. First I will point out what Burlington does when it asks citizens for so-called advice. Secondly I am going to point out just how indefensible the status quo is, and has been for decades.

Year after year, citizens have been invited to take part in committees and task forces and reports. Year after year the hard work of those committees is shelved. It has to stop. 

Please. Don’t ask people to take part in any more reports that are consigned to dusty shelves for consideration ‘as we go forward’. Sitting beside the Shape Burlington Report from 2009. And the Inclusive Cities Canada Civic Panel from 2005. And the Community-Based Government Committee of 1997.

Twenty-three years and counting, just on the subject of advisory committees. Twenty-three years, and hardly any change. Who remembers the Engagement Charter? When was the last time it was mentioned in a council document? What about all the other recommendations in the Shape Burlington Report? What change is actually being proposed today? Seriously? I’m asking because I don’t know. The report speaks of an incremental approach. What increment? What’s different? 

Any changes adopted at City Hall are too little, too late to stem the tides of cynicism and distrust that form the public view of local government. This systematic institutional inability to achieve even modest change does huge damage to local democracy and the council-members who are the public faces of it. 

But what was the consensus from those consulted about advisory committees? For 23 years, what has every citizen-based report about advisory committees shared? What is obvious from the public meetings and questionnaires submitted by the public, advisory committees and city hall staff that went into this report?

That of all possible decisions that might be made about advisory committees, the status quo was only one that nearly everybody agreed was unacceptable.

Listen to just one staff liaison comment: 

I have seen older members dominate …. newer members. Those newer members have in several cases become discouraged and left the committee. I have seen committee members speak abusively towards staff … I have experienced difficulty tracking how the committee has spent the budget that Council allocated them for multi-year projects. … I have seen a committee chair’s spouse get involved in committee business, publicly misrepresent [their] connection to the committee, use committee materials that [they] obtained from the chair’s personal computer and bring legal risk to the committee (all the while defaming the reputation of the committee vice-chair).

Burlington City Hall Advisory Committee Liaison

There’s much more in that single account that I urge you to seek out, because it speaks to a committee that was taken over by a special interest with the express intent of undermining that committee’s stated purpose.

How can such a situation arise? Largely, because of the way advisory committees are currently selected. Volunteers are interviewed to find the most appropriate members. Appropriate being defined how? Nobody knows, but one criteria always mentioned is expertise. 

A member of a Heritage committee might own a heritage house. A member of a cycling committee is probably a keen cyclist. A retired planner. A retired manager. I have friends on the cycling and heritage committees, but their very depth of involvement brings inherent bias. The advice of a committee of activists is of no value to use as a barometer of the city. Such committees reflect only themselves. They are pressure groups. They cannot give you the unbiased or sound advice you need and our community deserves. 

Activists have to operate – and operate best – outside city hall – like Burlington Green, or ECoB, or BFAST, or any number of others. What you need is a sense of the views of the whole community. 

And we know there are often not enough volunteers for committees, so staff and council members hunt for likely candidates. They will make a quiet suggestion to a friend, a well-known volunteer, a ‘good guy’ who can be trusted. I know; I’ve been asked to apply for committees multiple times. That’s how the system works.

One effect of this is that city halls across Canada turn to the same one or two visible minority residents to sit on multiple committees. Diversity representation is reduced to one or two non-white voices in a city of hundreds of thousands. 

And worst of all, the committees are dominated by the most privileged voices in society. Overwhelmingly middle class, middle aged and senior, white, wealthy and male. So the advice reflects wealthier, whiter and maler priorities. There is simply no defence any more.

And I do acknowledge the hard work of many committee members. Yet the good work that happens has little to no impact on anything the city does, and is discredited by the dysfunctional committees that frankly deserve to be ignored.

This council was elected with a mandate and expectation of change. Advisory committees should be low-hanging fruit, not an impossible nut to crack. We all know the wheels of government turn incredibly slowly, but you should all be furious that we’ve wasted two years getting nowhere. To continue with the status quo is an embarrassment.

I’ll conclude with this. Two people got paid in this process. The two IAP2 consultants – so-called experts in public participation – who came in from BC and Oakville, wasted your time and ours, and undermined everything our committee of residents had done. Can you spot the irony of that?

But Richard Delaney of Delaney and Associates suggested we just abolish advisory committees and replace them 100% with task forces. Did he think we hadn’t thought of that? We did. At length. But maybe we know enough about Burlington to know that that wasn’t a good idea and would throw away the benefits a functional advisory system would bring.

But you know what? Why not do it? You could not have a worse situation that you have now, and you will avoid wasting any more of the time of good people who pour hard work and optimism into these advisory committees. 

Thank you.


  1. Hi, Roland. Just wanted to share my perspective as a member of an advisory committee (the Cycling advisory).

    In your delegation, you state that ‘activists’ belong ‘outside city hall’, and seem to be of the perception that because certain members of the community have expertise with or interest in a specific subject, that they are therefore of little value as advisors. This is where I would strongly disagree.

    The reality I’ve experienced is far more messy and far more real that what you suggest. Yes, committee members all bring their biases and experiences to the table. They also learn from the experience and knowledge of the others, from the staff that they interact with, and the developments taking place in the field. People often use the terms ‘activist’, ‘cyclist’, etc. as a means of dividing people and making them into an ‘other’ or something to be feared. But every person who volunteers for a committee is also just as much a member of the community as any other.

    “A member of a cycling committee is probably a keen cyclist”. But what does that mean? In the cycling advisory committee, there are members with small children, grown-up children, high-schoolers, no children. Cargo bike riders and roadies. Members who commute to transit, members who take part in triathlons and charity rides, We have members with a police perspective, members who span the political spectrum from left to right. Women and men. From every ward in the city. There is a great deal of diversity already around that table. Could there be more dimensions of diversity represented? Absolutely. But the exposure to others that is inherent in the process is a great way to temper one’s biases and include different perspectives.

    A few years back (I believe the end of 2016), the City conducted an open house where members of all advisory committees presented to the public. It was advertised widely. This was a great recruiting tool. We started the following year with many new members and a lot of new energy. Unfortunately, our committee hasn’t been enabled to keep up the recruiting since prior to the municipal election. As a result, we missed quorum several times, and many of the more senior members have passed the limit on our terms. Events were scaled back in 2019 due to lack of volunteers, and understandably events planned in 2020 haven’t happened due to COVID.

    Like you, I hoped to see more come out of this review. I hoped to see a robust effort to market participation in citizens’ committees, and to focus on underrepresented groups in soliciting additional volunteers. I hoped to see some improved guidance and tools for committees to improve communication and involvement between them, the communities they represent, and Council. That can still happen but it’s been a long time coming. I’m glad they at least decided to open up recruiting. As it stands, we need to get moving quickly if this committee is to be even marginally functional in the remainder of this council term. Also, hoping that people know about such opportunities and decide to participate. We need you!

    This council has a very aggressive goal in V2F to increase the mode share of active transport during its term. Getting input from the community of people who have expertise with and understanding of the challenges that people using active transportation face, is critical to help them get their goal achieved. They need the help of citizens, and citizens need the help of a Council that makes decisions on a fully informed basis.

    1. Author

      Thanks Chris for your comment – as always, many good points. My counter argument would be this:

      City halls need to hear everybody – activists and non-activists. The plain fact is, activists are very good at getting their voices heard, if they are good at being activists. The challenge for cities is to hear the activists – who absolutely have an essential role in any democracy – but also have the tools in place to hear ‘engaged non-activists’. By confusing activists and non-activists and demanding vaguely-defined ‘expertise’ to be on an advisory committee, we skew the committees far too far towards activism and, worse, special interests and resume-padders looking to run for council. This hurts the committees’ ability to get the respect they need to be heard, and the most rare commodity at city halls – independent assessment and insight from a citizen perspective – is cut out of the process once again.

      BFAST was created, as I understand it, out of an advisory committee that was seen by some city hall insiders as ‘too pro-transit’ and in essence got fired. As a citizen activist group I’m not sure any organisation in Burlington has managed to change the conversation around transit so effectively. As an advisory committee they were dismissed, ignored and ineffective at changing the direction of a chronically anti-transit council. They got far mpre respect outside city hall than they would ever have gotten if they stayed as an advisory committee.

      Heritage Burlington also ran into a council (or councillors) who felt it was too ‘pro Heritage’ about 10 years ago. It was reorganised, members were forced out, the Burlington’s heritage register/database was abolished and replaced with something much smaller, and by the time of the last council it came to be dominated by a group of people with a hardline “property-owners’ rights” agenda. Believe me – that’s not me guessing or editorializing. I have multiple very good sources to that effect.

      People with a view of the rights of owners of heritage properties deserve to have their voices heard, but they have no right taking over a committee and using it for their personal agenda. Activists have a right to be heard, but will tend to undermine the respect that councillors will give to advisory committees when working inside city halls.

      This is exactly the point people made against ECoB. That it didn’t represent citizens, only an angry sub-section of citizens that had been orchestrated by the future mayor to aid her campaign. None of that is true, but let me ask you this. How would you feel if ECoB’s board took over the Sustainable Development Committee?

      My final point would be: look at Toronto’s Planning Review Panel and tell me that those members are less capable than the volunteers the same committee would traditionally attract. Think of that same committee filled with 50% anti-density/anti-highrisers on one side, and 50% pro-density or development interests on the other. How would such a divided committee provide anything of value to a council or its staff? It would be ignored – and frankly, rightly so.

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