Backroom Politics and Trust

August 3, 2013

We’ve all heard the term “backroom politics”. It is a term used to describe politicians at any level of government who operate outside of established process – the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the backroom as a place where deals are “made in an inconspicuous way : behind-the-scenes.”

All decisions made by government should be made with full transparency (unless subject to Closed Meeting regulations). Backroom politics are not only morally wrong in a democratic society, but in some cases illegal.   For this reason, an accountable government has a set of rules and procedures by which it governs itself.

The City of Guelph has such rules.  We call them by-laws.   Council has a set of rules too.  We call them Procedural By-Laws.

We have these regulations — by-laws —  to ensure that we all play by the same set of rules.  By-laws are made with loads of community consultation, and therefore, they have the public interest in mind when they are enacted by Council.

If you want an exemption from a by-law, for whatever reason, there are ways to seek such an exemption. Exemptions from by-laws are made by Council or a Council-delegated authority.

If you want an exemption from a by-law — like the Noise By-law for example — what should a citizen, business or organization do?

Here’s the process:

  • Apply at City Hall for a Noise By-law Exemption.  It’s a  simple process.  Start by contacting the Manager of By-law Compliance.  His name is Doug Godfrey and his email is doug.godfrey@guelph.ca.  He’s a helpful fellow and will guide you through the process.
  • He will bring it forward to the Chair of the Operations, Transit and Emergency Services (OTES), and will circulate the exemption request for input to various other related departments such as Building, Engineering, etc. who might be affected.
  • If the Exemption request has potential impact on the community, a notice will be circulated to affected residents, outlining the exemption request and asking for feedback.
  • Feedback is considered, and a report and recommendation will go to the OTES committee for consideration.
  • The report and recommendation are public and members of the community can speak in favour or against at both Committee and/or Council.
  • If OTES Committee agrees with the exemption, they will send it to Council for approval.
  • At Committee, or at the full Council meeting, any councillor can argue in favour, against or amend the recommendation.
  • This can all happen in a short period of time (less than 30 days) if deemed necessary.
  • In some cases, such as annual events (Canada Day), the authority to exempt a by-law is delegated to staff.

Exemptions to by-laws are not the responsibility of individual councillors.    And for good reason.   Individual councillors hold no power.  We make decisions and act collectively.  Any councillor who receives an exemption request from a person, organization, business, developer or any other stakeholder should direct that person  to contact our By-Law Compliance department.   That’s called transparency.

Once referred, the request is vetted, consultation takes place, all affected neighbours are contacted and given an opportunity to weigh in equally and without political interference.  It is in the best interests of the public and the business/person asking for the exemption to have the request dealt with through the proper process.  Not doing so calls into question the legitimacy of the request, and integrity of all involved.

When a councillor and an external party propose and discuss a by-law exemption, without the knowledge of the Mayor, the Committee Chair, or the staff responsible for administering the by-law, it is the dictionary definition of “backroom” politics.  It’s not customer service, it is circumvention of the democratic process, pure and simple.

That’s what happened at the City Council meeting of July 29, when one member of Council attempted to alter a Noise By-law Exemption request, without due process, after personally contacting a representative of a business doing construction in the City of Guelph.

We all want business to thrive, create jobs and stimulate the local economy.  But, it must be done fairly, equitably, transparently and with full public participation.  All political stripes from right to left, and everything in between, understand that basic principle of democracy.   To do anything less calls into question the integrity of our local government.  

LP