Backroom Briefing Q: Why Does It Seem Like Decisions Are Made So Slowly At City Council?

GOYETTE'S BACKROOM BRIEFINGQ: Why does it seem that decisions are made so slowly at City Council? –Bill, Peterborough

Goyette:  The question is fairly general in nature, so I am going to respond in kind.

First, the conventional wisdom. Government is slow. In a race with a turtle, it would strike a subcommittee to review the risks associated with winning. The file is under active review. It will be determined in the fullness of time. The perception of lethargic government is so fully ingrained in the broader culture that we presume it to be self evident. And it is undeniably rich territory for the jester: “If it was forced to proceed through City Hall, the aging process itself would be slowed down.”

Because speed is relative, we see the measured march of the public sector in relation to the hustle and headway of the private sector, and the comparison is not flattering. Neither is it fair, and here’s why.

Unlike the private sector, the public sector is not driven by revenues, margins or profit. Its shareholders have expectations that go well beyond financials to include every aspect of public life, the breadth and complexity of which cannot be denied. As a result, government becomes a pleaser and a purveyor of inclusiveness, generating practices that necessarily chew up time.  Government operates in a fishbowl, and that means it has to present favourable processes as well as favourable services. Those processes are extensive and often imposed by other governments. Government leaders understand that the most meaningful and grounded decisions—the ones that are likely to come back and bite you—are those that result from genuine community consultation and input, which takes time.  

I am not an apologist for slow government. Neither are most people I have met who work in government, the vast majority of whom want to be part of a prideful organization. The issue has to do with the manner in which the above noted public sector characteristics are perceived by public sector workers. Unfortunately, some will use those characteristics as a rationalization for inefficiency, creating a culture of acquiescence and resignation.

To my mind, the answer lies in accepting the reality that government proceeds at a pace designed to serve its uniquely public purposes. The trick lies in creating a workplace culture that resists the temptation to let constraints become crutches, and pays permanent homage to the idea of doing things better. And faster.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: What Happens During Closed Door Meetings Before City Council?

GOYETTE'S BACKROOM BRIEFINGQ:  What happens during the closed door meetings that sometimes happen before (and delay) City Council meetings? —Elizabeth

Goyette:  We begin with the principle that the business of the public must be conducted in public. The democratic underpinning for this has to do with both the watchful inhibition of wrongdoing and the ethical promotion of accountability through transparency. Public exposure of government decision making increases public trust and decreases the invitation to impropriety.

Nonetheless, this fine principle can easily bump up against the practical realities of government decision making. A public meeting about a personal matter involving an identifiable individual may offend his or her right to privacy. A public meeting about a lawsuit may reveal information harmful to the case or offend solicitor-client privilege. The Ontario Municipal Act (Section 239.2) permits meetings or parts of meetings of Council or its Standing Committees to be closed to the public for situations like these, and the City of Peterborough’s procedural bylaw identifies nine such situations. The most recent of these was added last year, with some debate, having to do with education and training for Councillors.

Here’s what happens at a “closed session” meeting.

The meeting is held in a Committee Room, and begins in public or “open session,” followed by a vote of the Councillors to close the meeting to the public. Staff presentations frequently take place, and staff reports are printed on bright yellow paper to identify them as confidential; they are not publically distributed. The procedure for the meeting follows that of an “open session” meeting with the notable exception that formal voting by Councillors does not occur: a direction may be given to staff; a straw vote may be held to judge the will of the Councillors; or a consensus may be reached through discussion. The reason for the avoidance of a formal vote is optics—that is, the laudable avoidance of the perception of deal-making behind closed doors. 

When the Councillors come out of the “closed session” they head into the “open session,” typically in the publically accessible Council Chambers. Public reports are distributed by the Clerk on the matters that have been agreed to: these are prepared and edited in advance to respect the confidentiality that brought them to the “closed session” in the first place. Councillors may speak to these reports in the “open session” before they are voted on, but rarely do because of the challenge of respecting the confidential elements of the matters they have just dealt with. The formal vote then takes place in public.

Many observers register surprise when they first come across this closed door process, because it appears to offend the highly desirable principle of transparency. In time, they come to see it as the necessary practice that it is: a means of permitting the City to protect its own corporate interests by meeting in private, but only when it would be harmful or prejudicial to those interests to do so in public.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: How do You Deal With Conflicting Ideas Between Politicians & Public Servants?

Q: How do you deal with the challenge of permanent professional staff who have conflicting ideas of how our City should run compared with a temporary and yet democratically elected Council? –Michael VanDerHerberg.

Goyette: Michael is an owner of the wonderful Silver Bean and the proprietor of He indicates that his question arises from a DBIA presentation on a new public square for Peterborough. It also goes to the heart of decision making in local government.

The three traditional branches of government—legislative, executive and judicial—enjoy separate and independent areas of balanced responsibility, all functioning at the will of and in support of the electorate. City Hall deals primarily with two of these branches: the legislative branch (elected City Councillors who make laws) and the executive branch (appointed public servants who administer laws).

The fundamental distinction is that Councillors represent the value laden and often short term views of municipal electors, while public servants represent the objective and often long term interests of the municipal corporation.

Of course, the two groups work together and are reliant on each other. In their working relationship, the lines of responsibility inevitably flex and blur, based largely on the forces of personality, culture and the corporate appetite for change. Manageable conflict can be expected to arise as a result of differing perspectives: short term interests versus long term interests; popular opinion versus professional expertise; popular spending versus prudent financial management; publicity versus privacy; innovation versus inertia; the fanciful versus the practical.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best decisions are obtained when the two branches are in comfortable balance. My own experience is that the executive branch—appointed public servants—are more likely to be dominant in smaller municipalities and those with part-time Councillors. With larger municipalities and full-time Councillors, the legislative branch tends to exercise more authority. 

As I see it, the City Peterborough is now experiencing a change in this balance involving a strengthening of its legislative branch. Elected Councillors now have computers, smart phones, tablets, IT support, their first-ever modest discretionary budgets, and staff dedicated to assist them in their work. This is, I believe, a very healthy trend that will provide Councillors with resources of the sort already made available to the local MP and MPP.

Like any relationship, the key to success is to ensure a fair balance of responsibility and to create conditions conducive to mutual respect and compromise. In the ultimate expression of that relationship, and to the extent that we value representative democracy and electoral accountability, City Council is always supreme.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: Could Peterborough Set Pace As First Municipality To Adopt "Gender-Based Budgeting"?

 Q: Could Peterborough set the pace as the first municipality to adopt “Gender-Based Budgeting?” –Betsy McGregor

Goyette: Betsy is the federal Liberal candidate for the Peterborough Riding and a compassionate supporter and coach of Special Olympic athletes. Her question follows on an International Women’s Day article published at by the Peterborough & County Older Women’s Network, of which she was an author.   

The concept of gender-based budgeting is both innovative and challenging. The movement gained some traction in Australia in 1984 before it was shut down there in 1996. Advanced by feminists and progressives interested in gender equality, it has had occasional implementation elsewhere. The idea is that the process used to develop a budget is made to include an assessment of the impact of that budget—primarily its expenditures—on women and girls.

For example, do the expenditures set out in the City of Peterborough operating budget favour men and boys over women and girls? When the City spends tax dollars on the West 49 Skateboard Park on McDonnell Street, is that a disproportionate or unfair benefit for boys? When it spends tax dollars on parent and tot programs at the Sport and Wellness Centre, is that a disproportionate or unfair benefit for women?

Budgets are more than just the allocation of dollars to priorities; they are expressions of values. And values are never neutral. Nor are budget makers or elected decision makers. Budget making is an art as well as a science, and there is no doubt that imperfect budgets embody the imperfection of unintended bias. There is also no doubt that a budgetary lens on gender bias would serve as a tool for advocacy for women’s rights and the promotion of gender equality.

The central challenge for Peterborough is not how the City would go about viewing its budget through a gender equality lens—we could create a model for that—but how we would accommodate all the other deserving lenses at the same time, such as expenditures by neighbourhood, by age, by income, by population density, by accessibility, by ethnicity, by disability, by health or environmental impact, and on and on. That splintered house of mirrors would so blur the budgetary vision as to render it sightless.

It seems to me that the answer lies not in the creation of a better budget device, but in the promotion of a better budget lobby. Organize and advocate. Show up when budgets are being developed. Reveal the wrong. Describe a better end state. Make it real and personal. Be seen, be heard, be passionate and be compelling. Make your case to those who are elected to be the guardians of community values. In the end, social change has more cultural grip when it is motivated by reason and emotion rather than compelled by technique.

People issues are best resolved by people pressure.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: What Kind Of Social Issues Do You Deal With At City Hall?

Q: We’ve had high unemployment and prices keep going up. What kind of social issues do you deal with through the Mayor’s Office? –Rennie Marshall

Goyette: Rennie—the person who asked this question—was a candidate for City Councillor in Monaghan Ward in the 2010 municipal election. She is an inveterate political groupie and informed City Hall watcher.  (A Cityhallic?)

Municipal government and its association with the delivery of social services has long been a moving target.

 In Ontario, the first framework for local self government came about as a result of The Municipal Corporations Act of 1849, better known as The Baldwin Act. At the time, cities and towns had a limited role in providing social services that was focused on the funding of charities.  The modern welfare state in Ontario really got underway in the late 19th Century with the Great Reform government of Oliver Mowat, at a time when poverty was associated with a moral failing that was remedied by “Houses of Industry and Refuge”—the original poorhouses—or jail.  

Toronto hired its first “Relief Officer” in 1893. Compassion for First World War disabled soldiers and their families led to the introduction of a number of social services such as Mother’s Allowance and the first public pensions, as did the Great Depression that gave rise to a variety of employment related benefits. Civil and human rights movements have propelled the modern municipal agenda that now includes social assistance, housing, hostels, employment, counselling, child care, wage subsidy, nursing and homemaking—the bulk of which are mandatory and cost-shared between the City and the province.

When people ask what issues we deal with in the Mayor’s office, my answer is all of them. Our role in the field of social services is to provide cooperative leadership in setting an agenda, choosing priorities, finding the balance between compassion and fiscal responsibility, reviewing reports and agendas, liaising with staff, preparing reports and motions, advocating with other levels of government, communicating the City’s plans and programs, and carrying out constituent relations.  

It’s this last category of social service that Rennie likely has in mind. People communicate with the Mayor every day, and some of them do so in person and unannounced. On their arrival at the Office—which they often see as a place of last resort—they are sometimes confused, resigned or despondent. Some recent examples we have dealt with involve personal issues of homelessness, food, inability to pay bills, family violence, child custody, depression, addiction and banishment from agencies. (There are also the angry, like the person who mailed his parking ticket payment to the Mayor in a large, heavy envelope containing 80 carefully and individually wrapped loonies.)

It may come in different forms, but it’s all social service.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: Will Athletic Facilities Really Help Drive Population Growth?

Q: The Mayor has been quoted as saying that there could be more population growth if the community had more “athletic facilities.” I believe that there is just such a link. Could you expand on this thinking? —Bill O’Byrne

Goyette: Bill is a regular and welcome visitor to our office, and the Chair of Sport Kawartha—an impressive organization with more than 30 sports group/associate members that launched in April of 2010 with a mandate to value, improve, recognize and promote sport participation in the region. You can see the savvy in the man: He quotes the Mayor and then seeks confirmation as a method of promotion. I like it.

The Mayor was responding in February to a report on the City’s growth. He said that we might consider building new sports facilities and other infrastructure to attract young families to the City.

The question has to do with the reasons people move to a new location. These can be divided into two categories: One is a set of “push” factors at the point of origin that trigger movement, such as a lack of economic or educational opportunity; personal issues such as divorce, retirement or a preference for independence; and cultural discomfort such as religious or political conflict or persecution. Another is a set of “pull” factors at the point of destination that attract movement, such as jobs, education, the presence of family or community, climate, and a host of personal perceptions of benign conditions. These are all tied to the stages and cycles of life, as well as psychological outlook. For many, the grass can easily look greener on the other side.  

The research indicates that because of “distance decay,” people are more likely to move to places that are closer to them rather than further away. It also indicates that you are more likely to adopt a new hometown if you already know it. That means that people who move to Peterborough are statistically more likely to have come from somewhere nearby, and have been here before. The arrival here of people from the GTA and those who have prior cottage or rural experience would seem to bear this out.

Do athletic facilities rank highly as a drawing card for these newcomers? Not on their own, and not to the degree of other factors such as a new job. While they are probably more important in retention rather than attraction, they are undoubtedly part of the bundling of community benefits—the “infrastructure” that the Mayor referred to—that inform smart economic and tourism promotion. There is consensus that we have an entrenched deficit of sports facilities in the region, and the remedy for that, which is well underway, stands on its own merits as an issue of the quality of community life.  


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: Is Ashburnham Drive A Rough Road to Tourism?

Q: Ashburnham Drive: Are there any plans to upgrade or repave this road in order to make it attractive for our visiting tourists? We seem to have an active tourism office, but when people actually visit they shouldn’t have their travel memory include a description of a poorly-maintained access road. —JC Gonder

Goyette: JC's concern is understandable, in that he and his associates at Promotion Marketing and Design and Whatever Solutions and Media on Pido Road have a direct interest in the state of a key access road to their offices.

The research shows that they are not alone. People care about the quality of their roads, and especially in four season climates. When surveyed on municipal services, people routinely rank roads as a key concern in terms of safety, speeding, repair, parking, snow removal, litter, drainage, runoff, sidewalks and accessibility. Cynical pragmatists have long contended that decisions related to highway repair were closely correlated with political partisan representation and the timing of elections. In some constituencies, good roads are a magnet for good votes.

Ashburnham Drive is a gateway to a surprisingly large number of City sites, including Ecology, Beavermead , Farmcrest, Eastgate and Walker Parks; The Trans Canada Trail; Rogers Cove; the PUC and Parks Canada buildings; Lock 20 and the nationally significant Liftlock; and Ashburnham Memorial Park and Peterborough Museum and Archives.

The heritage of the road is strongly tied to the former Village of Ashburnham, a community on the east bank of the Otonabee founded in 1859 and connected to Peterborough at the time by the Howe truss wooden bridge. The Village was annexed by the City of Peterborough on December 2, 1903—the result of a vote favoured by only 99 of 178 Village voters. The village Council itself was very cautious about its own road expenditures: the first sidewalks on today’s Hunter Street were approved on condition that they were limited to two wooden planks per side, and that the planks be laid parallel to the roadway rather than at more expensive right angles.

Traffic counts on Ashburnham Drive from Lansdowne East to Marsdale Drive undertaken last November indicate that the road is heavily used; the average weekly traffic count was 7,148 (northbound) and 7,463. (southbound) This year, during March and April when the roadway is vulnerable, commercial vehicles on Ashburnham will be restricted to half loads.

The approved 2012 City of Peterborough Capital Budget includes $3.8 million (2011 dollars) for major reconstruction of Ashburnham Drive from Lansdowne to Maria Street involving new asphalt pavement, concrete curbs and gutters, sidewalks, bicycle lanes and storm sewers, all of which will coincide with water main improvements to be undertaken by the Public Utilities Commission. The detailed design will be completed in 2013 and the construction completed in 2014.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: Are There Party Politics At City Hall?

Q: Are there party politics at Peterborough City Hall? —Whitney, Peterborough

Goyette: Yes and no, but don’t give up on me just yet.

Officially, party politics do not exist at City Hall. There is no formal organization of Liberals, Greens, Conservatives, New Democrats, Communists, or any other political party that directs the work or the decision making of the elected Councillors. This is not to say that there are not well established municipal political parties elsewhere. They are a common feature of political life in Rome, Stockholm, Tokyo, Berlin and London.

In Canada, they have a foothold in Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec, and we have seen parties and caucuses formed in cities such as Surrey, Richmond, Edmonton and Winnipeg. Even Toronto has played around the edges of formal partisanship with the Responsible Government Group. I want to suggest that the greater the regional polarization among provincial or federal parties, the greater the likelihood of municipal partisanship. 

Most Ontario politicians do not see the need for new municipal political parties, because it could weaken their own riding association or supporter base. Worse, it could result in a popular local politician rising to challenge the provincial leadership outside of the control of the traditional political parties. There is a quaint notion that little local issues do not rise to the standard of weighty provincial or federal issues, and therefore do not merit the discipline of political partisanship.

Those opposed to municipal parties also argue that City Hall is a place that, unlike an opposition party with its duty to oppose, has a duty to find consensus, and that the creation of consensus would be undermined by partisanship. On the other side of the argument, political parties are seen to give voters real choices; help replace “personality voting” with more substantive “issue voting;” permit a healthy electoral debate about vision rather than potholes; and increase voter turnout.

Locally, partisanship is like the reality that dares not speak its name. Some Peterborough City Councillors belong to political parties; all have political leanings. Some attend and speak at partisan electoral events and conventions; some rely on party election workers and fundraisers. But voting patterns at City Council are not expressly partisan. Instead, they are based on a combination of influences such as staff advice, personal values, assumed or expressed constituency preference, electoral implications, alliances with other Councillors or applicants, self perceptions as team players or mavericks, and the play between intellectual principle and emotional immediacy.  

As I see it, municipal political parties are not on the local horizon and there is no desire to see political partisanship come out from under the covers.

Councillors understand that if you want decisions that best represent community opinion, you are more likely to find them based on a consideration of the merits of each individual issue, coupled with the creation of one-time alliances, than you are through predetermined partisanship. Not only that, but partisans sink or swim with the party, which can make for some very short careers.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. For more on his Backroom Briefing column, click here. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: What Is The Working Relationship Between The City & MPP Jeff Leal's Office Like?

Note: This is the 4th column of David Goyette's "Backroom Briefing" for PTBOCanada. For more info on it, click here.


Q: David, Jeff and I would be interested in having your take on the working relationship between our offices. —Pat Melanson, Executive Assistant to Peterborough MPP Jeff Leal.

Goyette: For many decades, provincial governments have been enamoured with a description of municipal governments as “creatures of the provinces.” This phrase is technically accurate, in that cities like Peterborough are created by the Province of Ontario and are its constitutional responsibility: as a rule, the City’s functions, finance and governance all depend on provincial authorization.

However, the “creatures” reference has occasionally taken on an imperial and even paternalistic aren’t you a cute and fuzzy little creature tone, as if to offer to municipalities the constitutional caution that we the province brought you into this world and we the province can take you out.   

Jeff Leal and his staff are different. MPP Leal had 18 years of experience as a Peterborough City Councillor. He’s seen both sides of the intergovernmental divide and his consistently respectful and collegial approach to City Hall is a terrific local asset. In other places, including a number where I have worked, some heavy duty barriers to the provincial-municipal relationship can easily get in the way: political partisanship; assumptions of superiority; competition for media; and exclusivity in scheduling. This is one aspect of life where competition does not produce superior results.  

Here’s how the Office of the Mayor and the Office of the MPP typically work together:

*We are in contact with each other weekly.

*We share notice and details on emerging provincial and municipal issues.

*We share information on prospective investment/job creation opportunities.

*We receive assistance in terms of gaining access to and promoting causes with provincial Ministers.

*We receive notice and briefing on provincial funding announcements.

*We undertake high level event management such as the visit of the Prime Minister and the Premier for last fall’s airport opening.

*We direct and refer constituents to each other’s offices for assistance.

*We make arrangements for joint announcements, including those that take place in the Council Chamber.

Because we are relatively few in number and we share in the experience of life in a fishbowl, there is a camaraderie that binds all politicians and political staff. Without doubt, we have the most fascinating conversations with each other, encompassing not only public policy, but political personality, political strategy, and the risk and reward of decision making.

To be certain, the MPP does the business of the Province and the Mayor and Council do the business of the City. The fact that there are more factors that bring the two together than drive them apart is a testimony to a shared desire for the best in public service. 


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. For more on his Backroom Briefing column, click here. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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Backroom Briefing Q: Is The City Of Peterborough Going To Start Using Social Media In More Active Ways?

Note: This is the 3rd column of David Goyette's "Backroom Briefing" for PTBOCanada. For more info on it, click here.


Q: I would love to know if the City is going to update its social media policy and start using social media in more active ways—especially as part of their City communication plan. Is it?  –Alana Callan

Goyette: Good question. Let’s begin with the assumption that social media—communication among online communities enabled by electronic tools and protocols—is here to stay. Online and cellular communication has already changed the way that people consume, relate to and share information. This website is an example of that. About 8 million Canadians have Twitter® accounts. There are a prescient few who foresee growing user fatigue, but the digital cat seems well out of the bag.  

Governments are not typically early adapters of technologies, and that caution is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when taxpayer money is at stake. On the other hand, the wider public sector has so much to gain in relating to its communities via social media that its employment seems obvious. Consider the advantages to government in dealing with its constituencies: wider and faster reach; interactivity and engagement; new marketing and survey possibilities; program and event promotion; staff collaboration; new payment options; and all with greater frequency and speed at less cost. Add to that the spin virtues of openness, transparency, going green and enhancing customer service and you have a genuine catalyst for change.

On the political front, the Obama campaign of 2007/2008 was a turning point in the value verification of social media. The 2010 Bennett mayoralty campaign employed online innovations such as a virtual campaign office, Twitter®, video messaging, monthly opinion surveys and accessible scheduling. It's important to remember, of course, that if you are going to reach out to the world, the world is going to reach back in ways that may not be to your liking. The promotion of engaged communities always has its price.

By any measure, the City of Peterborough has an excellent website. Eight corporate Facebook® and/or Twitter® accounts are held by City departments or agencies, including the Mayor. The City is now in the process of reviewing its social media policy, and it has to be said that this is more complex than it might first appear. First, it requires a cultural shift involving a more relaxed view of the sharing of information and tolerance for varied opinion. Second, care has to be taken with matters of content, confidentiality, privacy, personal information, record keeping, liability, intellectual property, online/offline integration, compensation and employee conduct outside of the workplace. I have many of these same issues to deal with in writing this column.

Nonetheless, there is no denying the benefits of a form of Local Government 2.0 that one day might have you contacting your public transit operator to check out bus schedules on the go; being engaged in a City-sponsored survey on current issues or budgets; contributing to an online public meeting; or updating a street by street data portrait or photo file. It’s a brave new digital world.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. For more on his Backroom Briefing column, click here. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

Tip us at Follow us on Twitter @Ptbo_Canada or Like us on Facebook.