How Richard Butts is controlling city council

Top city bureaucrat manages politically sensitive issues and keeps council out of the loop.

A new "agenda forecasting" plan seeks to minimize politicians' awareness of what's going on it City Hall; the ultimate goal is to limit council meetings to one a month.
A new "agenda forecasting" plan seeks to minimize politicians' awareness of what's going on it City Hall; the ultimate goal is to limit council meetings to one a month.

A transit strike is underway and a lawsuit has been filed agains the city over the St. Pat's-Alexandra school, but mayor Peter Kelly last week said there was no reason for city council to meet at its regularly scheduled meeting for Tuesday, and so abruptly cancelled it.

The cancellation caused an uproar both in the community and among councillors themselves. On Sunday, Kelly reversed himself and rescheduled the meeting.

The meeting cancellation, however, was not a one-time misstep but rather part of a detailed "agenda forecasting" plan recently instituted by CAO Richard Butts, which is revealed in documents obtained by The Coast. The plan calls for centralized preapproval by Butts' office of all city staff interactions with council, advanced strategizing---as much as a year ahead---of staff presentations to council and a directive that Butts himself is to control any "politically sensitive" issue that may reach councillors' ears.

Even the plan itself is to be kept secret from both council and the public.

The goal, say city hall insiders, is to reduce the number of council meetings to one a month, and to completely manage council's understanding of issues brought forward by staff. To that end, staffers have been told not to meet with, or even talk to, city councillors, unless the issue is first raised at a city council meeting, or unless the CAO's office gives prior approval.

Councillors contacted for this article were completely unaware of the agenda forecasting plan, which has been policy since January 6. But those councillors said they've seen a chilling atmosphere at city hall; one spoke of having to surreptitiously meet with a staff member in a car, lest city hall brass happened upon the meeting. Another councillor said he has asked a staffer for what used to be routine information, only to be told to ask for it officially at a council meeting.

"The inherent danger here," says councillor Sue Uteck, "is that staff are going to have no freedom to express their risks or concerns in a report, because you can see in the process it says ‘accept or deny,’ but it doesn’t say, ‘What are you denying it on?’ Maybe because council doesn’t want to hear the news?

"This council needs to wake the Christ up as to what’s going on down there at city hall," continues Uteck. "We are being manipulated---if someone can’t see the obvious in this, about how they’re going to try to control the agenda and control council."

Uteck acknowledges that planning for better flow of information to council can lead to efficiencies in terms of council time, but her worry is that the centralized control has gone too far.

"Necessarily, it’s not a bad thing to try to get a plan, but right now an average staffer, in planning---once a planner signs off, that report takes five weeks to get to council," says Uteck. "This is why the developers are complaining."

"See how this is being vetted through, vetted through, vetted through?" she continues. "And in the end, it goes to Butts. Butts has to read everything, and only then will Butts sign off. This is the quagmire we’re in. It looks like to me [they’re saying], we will control how the reports finally gets to council, and what we’re going to say in that report. This gets to the whole corporate culture shift at HRM."

That corporate shift also worries councillor Jennifer Watts, who was also unaware that there was a new agenda process until contacted by The Coast. Watts says the process started with the reorganization about a year ago of the standing subcommittees of council.

"There used to be a much more easy flow of information; it wasn't the formalized standing committee, where you had to follow the rules of council," says Watts. "You know, where you sat in the chambers, you only had so many times to speak, which in some ways I find kind of stifling.

"Sometimes," continues Watts, "the best work that can be done, when you put a group of people together---councillors, staff, and if there happen to be some presenters in the room---that's the place where you can really get into some in-depth work, and figure some things out, connect some stuff, talk through some potential directions on an issue, and talk things out. There's a sense of engagement that I think is quite a positive thing. I find that's been lost to some extent by this formal standing committee structure."

Watts says there are both positive and negatives to the more formalized process as outlined in the agenda forecasting plan, but says that the ultimate goal of fewer council meetings "is not a good thing."

"For me, as painful as it can be sometimes at council---and I take full responsibility for that; I'm not blaming anyone else, I'm part of that group---but when we work at council, it's televised, it's public, people see what's going on, they hear the commentary, they understand the end that no matter how long it takes us, that was the process we went through to get there," she says. "That's a really important thing. And lessening the presence of council time, I don't see that as a positive thing."

Neither Watts nor Uteck said as much, but the new agenda control measures to some degree shift the decision-making process away from the elected politicians working in public and towards an unelected bureaucracy determining things behind closed doors.

The city's communications department was asked for comment to this article this morning, but did not respond as of 5pm.

See the agenda management plan here.

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