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Oversight is council’s primary function, though overlooked

As was the case at the region, Woolwich has passed another budget with little in the way of scrutiny and even less in the way of consideration, for the public good or otherwise. Essentially, elected officials rubber-stamp the poorly justified requests of bureaucrats.

The trend has been that council is little more than a formality for proposals brought forward by bureaucrats, often not in the public interest. That’s especially true with the expansion of unnecessary staff positions and overinflated wages and benefits. There’s simply been no pushback and, in more than a few occasions, outright compliance with counterproductive recommendations.

All too often there is little debate. Some councillors will claim consensus-building is more constructive than the type of hijinks we’ve come to expect of politicians at the upper levels of government, but like the legal system, governance works better when its adversarial. Councillors should disagree with one another from time to time: it’s very unlikely the first recommendation rolled out will be the best one … or even a good one. More importantly, councillors should always stake a contrary position from that of staff. That doesn’t mean there will never be agreement or common ground, only that every report outside of the workaday items should be viewed with a critical, even skeptical eye.

There’s been precious little of that for years.

We’ve long decried the lack of oversight in Woolwich council, which has been far too compliant with staff proposals. That’s especially true when it comes to hiring consultants. Sometimes it’s necessary when there are very technical issues at play, but that’s not always the case. As with hiring additional managers and similar employees – we’ve seen staff creep across the board with local government – the use of consultants can help insulate senior bureaucrats and politicians from the public and the accountability that comes with such scrutiny.

Why are we paying administrators – overpaying, in the case of bureaucrats – if they can’t make decisions … and stand by them, whatever the consequences?

Councillors are now essentially complicit in myriad failures and inefficiencies. Worse still, the budget process sees almost no discussion about where money could be put to better use, including essential infrastructure or simply returning it to taxpayers. If any alternatives ever crossed a councillor’s mind, there was certainly little indication of it around that table.

As the still-troubled economy has made painfully clear, nowhere is that more apparent than in the financial burden government imposes on citizens. Now more than ever, it’s time to focus on why local government exists in the first place: providing services to residents at a manageable cost. With spending outpacing inflation and the falling standard of living of many taxpayers, something has to give. Reversing the longstanding trend of increased spending and taxes is essential, as is ensuring good value for every dollar spent. Cutting what’s unnecessary means more money available for essential expenditures, such as dealing with aging infrastructure.

It’s council’s job to challenge reports and recommendations brought forward by staff. Bureaucracies are inherently self-aggrandizing and self-serving, something that has to be kept in check by elected officials. The latter group is prone to the same faults, though much less so at the level of small municipalities, but the tendencies shouldn’t be in sync with the administrators. For the system to work well – or better, at any rate – there should be a steady pushback by councillors.

It would be wrong to assume every recommendation is the best option, or even to assume it’s good for the public. That’s why ideas need to be vetted in a public forum. Luckily, that’s what council meetings are for, even if the many ersatz representatives seem to have forgotten that fact.

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