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Governance - Airdrie

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Governance – What is it and why is it Important?

There’s been a number of events over the past 6 months that have caused me to question the decisions being made by our City Council. When I tried to put my finger on what it was that bothered me, the word that popped into my head was ‘governance’. It seemed to me that Council was making decisions in a way that wasn’t appropriate for our municipal leaders; it wasn’t practising good governance. In my opinion, the public consultation process used in Council’s decision making was flawed; inclusivity, fairness and long range strategic planning and vision were not considered.

I had a sense of what governance meant from my many years of working on and with non-profit boards. But I had no idea if the rules of non-profit governance transferred to municipal governance. I just had a gut feeling that things weren’t quite right. Well, I decided to do some research and turns out I was onto something.

Governance is a word that not everyone is familiar with. When it comes to municipal councils, governance basically refers to the actions Council takes in order to make and implement decisions. In its simplest form, municipal governance relates to decision making.

The first decision that I found myself questioning was in regard to “The Square”.  I was honored to be invited to the unveiling – it sounded exciting to me. After the concept was unveiled I was surprised. I was surprised that despite my involvement in the community I had no idea that the City was working on this plan. I’m not going to say I was disappointed with the plan – of course there were things about the plan that I questioned, but overall I was excited. Turns out I wasn’t the only one taken aback about the scope of the project and the lack of public consultation that went into it. The development of the Airdrie Screwed Facebook page (now Airdrie Engaged) was a direct result of the failure of the City to consult with the community – a group of citizens were enraged. It’s not uncommon for citizens to become enraged when they are not included or consulted in decisions that impact them. “Citizen engagement is a broad term that encompasses action by elected officials and government organizations to account for the knowledge, experiences, views and values of the public in their decisions. For municipalities to implement decisions, and particularly difficult decisions in response to complex challenges, they require citizens’ consent and support. Unless citizens understand and are engaged in the decisions themselves then trust is easily lost.” (Alberta Urban Municipalities Association and the Alberta Association of Municipal District and Counties Citizen Engagement Toolkit, 2015, p.7)

I followed the ‘fall out’ from The Square quite closely. I wanted to know what the final iteration of the plan was going to be. To say that I was blown away by the outcome is an understatement. Granted the City made some mistakes in how the project was rolled out, but remember…I was excited about the possibility of a revitalized downtown. I had hope that we were finally seeing some progress in developing our city into the vibrant community I imagined it could be.

While I admit that there were pieces of “The Square” that I didn’t agree with I certainly didn’t agree with City Council’s decision to halt, or dismiss as a possibility, the entire concept. Sure, it needed to be tweaked, but I don’t think it should have been completely shelved. A quick read of The Square website, gives you a sense that the foundation was in place to reinvigorate downtown and to expand the library. As early as 2006 it was identified (City of Airdrie Great Places Report) that “A downtown plan is required … that would set out a comprehensive plan for this area that includes provision of a range of civic spaces.” To retreat from a plan that showed progress, finally, towards Airdrie’s vision of a “community rich in urban amenities” was disappointing.

Well, you see good governance includes making decisions based on consultation with all citizens – not just those with a loud voice or influence in the community.

So how does this all relate to governance? Well, you see good governance includes making decisions based on consultation with all citizens – not just those with a loud voice or influence in the community. I think City Council should have planned and implemented a civic engagement plan that followed best practises. The purpose of the engagement would have been to ask the entire community their thoughts on The Square. That’s referred to as the Legitimacy and Voice principle of governance, and it is universally recognized as one of the most important aspects of municipal governance (“Principles for Good Governance in the 21st Century” Policy Brief No.15, August 2003. John Graham, Bruce Amos, Tim Plumptre; City Governance Task Force Toronto Board of Trade May 2003). It takes planning and a commitment to citizen participation to ensure that all residents have the opportunity for their voices to be heard. “The Square” is a textbook example of the enrage that can happen when we fail to engage.

Another one of the principles of good governance relates to strategic planning. In governance literature, it is called “direction”. (“Principles for Good Governance in the 21st Century” Policy Brief No.15, August 2003. John Graham, Bruce Amos, Tim Plumptre.) A strategic plan or vision helps to ensure that both Council and Administration base their actions and decisions on working towards achieving that vision. Again Airdrie’s vision uses the terms “community rich in urban amenities.” The Municipal Development Plan (MDP) adopted by Council in 2014 states: “…Downtown area serves as a significant business, cultural and civic centre and retains viable retail capable of meeting the needs of residents and providing a unique sense of place.” (Airdrie City Plan, 2014 Municipal Development Plan, p. 16). What’s the point of having policies, bylaws and plans if you don’t follow them?

A strategic plan or vision helps to ensure that both Council and Administration base their actions and decisions on working towards achieving that vision. Again Airdrie’s vision uses the terms “community rich in urban amenities.”

Fairness is another of the principles of good governance. It relates to equity in that every person has access to opportunities to maintain or enhance their quality of life. (“Principles for Good Governance in the 21st Century” Policy Brief No.15, August 2003. John Graham, Bruce Amos, Tim Plumptre.) I think this principle relates to The Square, and in particular the library. I have heard people comment “why do we need a library – no one reads books anymore.” I’m always taken aback by this comment. Plenty of people read books; not everyone has an iPad or Kindle. Not every family, child, teenager, adult or senior who uses the library goes there to read. The Library offers everything from registered preschool literacy programs (caregivers will learn strategies to engage children in simple, effective literacy activities that enhance communication and development, and help prepare them for success in school) to programming for adults with disabilities and their aides/caregivers to programming for couples to learn conflict resolution skills, respectful relationship beliefs and understanding equality in healthy relationships. There is literally something for every age and stage at the Airdrie Public Library. In 2015, there were 173,788 visits to the Airdrie Public Library. The Airdrie Public Library Community Needs Assessment (2014) states: “Through the community engagement process, the Airdrie Public Library was viewed as having a nurturing and substantive influence in the development of the community…Airdronians expect the Library to play an important role in fostering and supporting literacy, learning and connections within Airdrie.” In my role with the Airdrie Angel Program, I met a wonderful mother who tearfully told me “the library saved my life”. The library provides affordable opportunities for all ages and stages to enhance the quality of their life.

I have heard people comment “why do we need a library – no one reads books anymore.” I’m always taken aback by this comment. Plenty of people read books; not everyone has an iPad or Kindle. Not every family, child, teenager, adult or senior who uses the library goes there to read.

“Too often, cities budget all their resources for the challenges of today, such as crime and road repairs. They do not budget time and resources for tomorrow. If a community is going to succeed, it must invest in its future…. great cities happen strategically.” (“Reaching for the Future Creative Finance for Smaller Communities”, P. 33; 3. Urban Land Institute, www.uli.org)

Our City is at a critical place in its growth; Airdrie has the potential to be an even greater City. I have a vision for Airdrie as a vibrant community with well-planned community facilities and spaces that meet the needs of all residents, contribute to Airdrie’s sense of community and contribute to our city’s economic prosperity.

Our City is at a critical place in its growth; Airdrie has the potential to be an even greater City. I have a vision for Airdrie as a vibrant community with well-planned community facilities and spaces that meet the needs of all residents, contribute to Airdrie’s sense of community and contribute to our city’s economic prosperity. I believe our community’s growth must be built on a foundation of community collaboration, inclusion and engagement. I believe that strong leadership with a sound understanding of municipal governance and an entrepreneurial spirit is needed to lead this City into the future.

By Marie Lauer