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Dissent and leadership

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There's an interesting piece in July's Municipal World magazine, by George Cuff, a former mayor and currently a consultant for municipalities, entitled "Leaders Encourage Dissent." It's the subject of his regular "Governance Zone" column, and worth comment.


I've always said that democracy and its leaders are measured by how they handle dissent, not by how they achieve consensus. It's comforting to read similar words from another writer.


Differing opinions show we are thinking; consent sometimes comes because we're not. After a gruelling six-hour meeting (of which we have had many this term), council may achieve consent simply by being run down past the time of caring to argue or challenge. But as Cuff says,

One of the greatest enemies of good governance is the notion that a successful council or board is marked by the absence of dissent.

There is often a pressure - sometimes subtle, sometimes overt - to conform and agree. It comes from not merely other members at the table, but often from the public, who sometimes see dissent as grandstanding, headline-grabbing, personality conflict and simple pig-headedness.


Cuff describes the difference between dissent and dysfunction in a council. He notes that simply not voting unanimously is not a sign a council is dysfunctional, but rather that attributes like bad-mouthing each other, dumping on the ideas of others, and criticizing a prior council are signs of being dysfunctional.


Well, several members of the current council - not merely the mayor - are guilty of the latter. The constant comparing the alleged openness and accountability of this council to the former verges on the obsessive, like kids seeing who can spit the furthest. But since most of the current council constituted the former council, it's really an attack against the former mayor thinly disguised.


Yet, as Cuff says about criticizing former councils (and therefore former mayors),

Speaking ill of the prior council is cowardly, and is not reflective of mature people.

One need only return to the matter of the repeal of the permits for the Admiral Collingwood development on the main street - the result of which is clearly visible today: a watery pit in the downtown instead of a completed building full of commercial and residential tenants. That was an early attack, led by the mayor, on the former council that - democratically, openly and legally - approved those permits and the development. Since the whole approval process was appropriately conducted, the attack can't be argued as being against a faulty process, or lack of openness or accountability. Did it accomplish anything more than an eyesore in the downtown?


Dissent, on the other hand, Cuff notes, is

...based on the notion that we are not all made alike, nor have we been socialized through the same experiences as our neighbours... Quite simply, we come at an issue from our own vantage point, and we may not see an issue the same as our collegaues... different approach to what someone else thinks is appropriate.

But there are those at the table who see dissent as not simply an alternative idea for discussion, but as a personal challenge that has to be confronted and beaten back. So dissenting commentary or concerns will be argued, dismissed or ridiculed at the table (or later - remember the "Chadwick doesn't have a law degree" and "Chadwick's not an expert" comments to the media?).


Cuff also points out something that I've wrestled with many times, that, "Sometimes the alternative is not covered by the staff report, or is 'Alternative B', which is not one recommended by the administration." Far too often, staff recommendations are treated by council not as recommendations to be weighed and debated, but as edicts that must be approved, unchanged and uncontested. It's true that, often, staff provide the best choice from the available alternatives - and I respect that - but sometimes there are alternatives not in the report that deserve discussion. Too many people at the table treat those recommendations as sacrosanct and not open to discussion. Some seem to forget that council was elected to debate, not merely to rubber stamp. Such discussion of alternatives is not disrespect for staff: it is democracy in action.


As Cuff notes,

For some reason, we have a number of councils and councillors who have bought into the silly notion that arguing against a position that has been recommended is akin to treason.

But if you do so argue, you may be belittled for your stance. When councillor Foley and I tried to argue about the recommendations of a commercial study, our concerns were sloughed off by the mayor. That reaction from the head of the council doesn't encourage others to speak out.


Cuff warns against "groupthink"* - which I and others have often accused the majority of council as participating in. The recent discussions over the development charges bylaw and proposed comprehensive zoning bylaw are, I think, good examples. In order to speed the process, the majority of council seemed overly eager to approve the lengthy bylaws without what I considered sufficient discussion and debate on some of the issues I raised.** Even my efforts to defer these bylaws so that full debate could continue later were unsuccessful. Is the greater good of the community served by such haste? I don't think so.


Cuff is equally upset by,

...normally clear-thinking adults parking their brains at the door of the chambers in order to 'keep the peace,' as though that were a higher goal than representing citizens.

I can appreciate that most people get onto council to contribute, to help, to accomplish things, rather than to fight or to confront one another. Many on council rose through the committee and board system where cooperation is the norm, not conflict. Most people have little if any experience in intellectual argument or debate. They find it uncomfortable to engage in confrontation when the situation inevitably arises at the table. Even when it means not defending their deeply-held views, they shy away from challenge. That makes it easy for a strong, aggressive personality - or a bully - to dominate council.***

An argument without facts is ignorance; a challenge to the proffered position, based on solid thinking, is discussion. A healthy council features differing opinions, heated discussion from time to time (based on the issues not the personalities), and a decision that may be determined by a vote with some still in opposition. Democracy is based on the foregoing assumptions. Leaders are comfortable proceeding on the basis of healthy, comprehensive, and sometimes painstaking discussion and decision making.

So is Collingwood council dysfunctional? Does the mayor stifle dissent? Both I would argue are true.**** I would equally argue that this council could have been much better, under a different style of leadership, one that encouraged open and wide-ranging discussion over issues, and accepted dissent as a healthy component of democracy.


* Described in Wikipedia as, "Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group.[1] During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group's balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight."
** Often when I raise issues at the table, the mayor chastises me for not giving him or staff a 'head's up' by email that the question would follow. I believe that bringing up issues in the public forum is the proper procedure. I will email staff over minor issues like typos or spelling mistakes, but issues are, I firmly believe, best discussed in the open.
*** That's why the former mayor used to get council and some staff together after a meeting for a glass of beer or wine: so we could relax, discuss things aside from politics, laugh, and get to know one another as individuals, not just people we fought with once a week. We talked about family, movies, sports, friends, gardens, pets, children - everything except politics. Most of us (the current mayor excepted) joined in. It taught us a lot about one another, helped us develop a respect for one another, and made our discussions at the council table more civilized, less acrimonious. Two weeks after the last election, I met with the new mayor and asked him if he intended to continue those after-council get-togethers, and expressed my feeling they were important for the unity of council. He told me, "I see nothing wrong with my behaviour over the past nine years, I see no reason to change it now." Socializing with council and staff has not been a practice of the current mayor, and the result can be seen in our bitter - arguably dysfunctional - Monday night meetings.
**** I covered Collingwood and other local councils for the media for more than a decade, in both local newspapers and as the local correspondent for CBC's Ontario Morning until early 2002. My perspective on the efficiency or dysfunction in the current council may be coloured by my subjective closeness to it, but I can't recall encountering a council or mayor like this in any of my years in the local media.

A step towards improving Collingwood Council deliberations would be to limit the meeting length to 4 hours. In the present procedure bylaw meetings, start at 5 pm and can go untill 11 pm. This 7 hour work period without a break is illegal under Ontario Labour Laws which call for a break after four hours. Council sincerity and productivity diminish greatly after four hours.

Nearby Clearview Procedures bylaw starts meetings at 7 pm and ends at 11 pm unless there is a majority resolution to continue. Most other community councils in Ontario, and the world, limit meeting times to 4 hours.. Steps should be taken to change the Collingwood procedures bylaw to conform the meeting length with other Ontario communities.

Also, a shorter Council session would encourage better agenda management to shorten or eliminate the endless poster presentations that would be more effectively presented in a printed or internet form for both Councillors and the public to digest before a meeting. In addition, it would be helpful to eliminate and/or shorten Council's many in-camera sessions.
Ian Chadwick
Aug 05 2009 12:14 PM

This piece hearkens back to my previous musings on leadership qualities. I agree that procedural changes like shorter meetings may alleviate some of the short-term anxieties and stresses at the table, meeting by meeting, but they are really not long-term solutions; merely plastering over the cracks while the wall crumbles. Without an inclusive form of leadership at the head, we (council) will not become a cohesive group - and in fact it's probably too late this term to get there.

The 2003 Cuff Report for Guelph Council has these related comments.

COMPETENT, CONFIDENT and COMMUNICATIVE COUNCIL: Let me start this last section with a section taken out of “THE CUFF REPORT”. “A City such as Guelph must assure itself that it is served by those who are competent in their roles and educated in their expertise required to perform their tasks. The citizens of Guelph expect that the Council will assure itself that the services the City funds are being carried out in a competent manner”. Furthermore, effective communication must:

1. Be regularly provided
2. Be widely distributed to those who need to know
3. Be easily understood
4. Be credible, that is perceived as an honest assessment of what is happening (or happened)
5. Be transparent
6. Be consistent
7. Be available
Additional comment on Guelph's Cuff Report is appropriate for the Collingwood Council.

Some members of council still conduct themselves in immature, juvenile ways, resulting in a continuingly dysfunctional decision making process, where battles are fought based on ego rather than logic; where promises from the last election are casually tossed aside; where hypocrisy runs rampant, and where our future is being ruined by ill-informed, short sighted, self-serving decision makers. Our city’s future is in a perilous position, and judging from how this council has acted in the past, I am not hopeful for a positive conclusion..
Futher comment on Guelph's Cuffreport apply to the Collingwood Council.

What is at issue is the fact that some members of the current city council feel that the end justifies the means. Long established rules and procedures can be broken or bent at will to suit the mood of council. In the last election some members spoke of accountability, of fiscal responsibility, and of integrity. These individuals have betrayed the trust we graciously empowered them with.
Here's more comment on Guelph's Cuff Report that refer's to a Council's political responsibility to look at alternates.

The CUFF report stated: “Our review of the reports made available to us reflects the fact that most reports do not reflect any available options for Council’s consideration, nor any of the key governance issues that the recommended action may impact. The absence of clear, defined options results in less than a full picture for Council’s consideration, and reduces the quality of its decision-making. Whenever the administration, through the senior management team, presents but one choice (with often only a single line devoted to the section “Alternatives”, it can be presumed that there are no other useful options from which Council can choose. Such is not the case, however, and Council is thereby limited in terms of the quality of its decisions.”

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