Skip to content

Council, not staff, set service levels, say governance experts

“Council needs to set the service targets, determine the degree of transparency and then management’s job is to do their absolute best to meet the council policy."
Canmore Civic Centre in winter 3
The Canmore Civic Centre. RMO FILE PHOTO

CANMORE – It is the role of council to set service levels and municipal staff to implement them, according to multiple political and governance experts.

At the March 21 Canmore committee of the whole meeting, several senior staff contended it was they who set service levels and the role of council to approve the budget to ensure adequate resources were allocated to meet those levels.

However, the setup of municipal governance clearly outlines the role of municipal staff and council in determining who is responsible for setting service levels.

“I think we get governments right when we understand council sets the policy, sets the direction and management does its best to live up to that policy and direction,” said George Cuff, a municipal governance expert with more than 45 years of experience in municipal leadership, consulting and writing.

“In terms of who has what role, the role of council is to determine what are degrees of responsiveness and transparency in regards to development and are we attempting to meet the standards set out by the MGA (Municipal Government Act) or attempting to enhance or beat those standards. That is a council policy judgment. … That’s a council right and responsibility. If they were to give that up, what are they there to do? Are they simply there to baptize the administration’s recommendations and my answer is no, obviously not. That’s not what the public elected.”

Cuff, who had the lead role inspecting the management, administration and operation of the City of Chestermere in the provincially-ordered probe of the embattled municipality that was released mid-March, said a key aspect in determining service levels is councils are inherently accountable to the electorate.

While he said municipal staff can make recommendations and outline the resources necessary to attain or maintain a level of service, the decision is ultimately that of council.

“Management is obviously very intelligent, but they can be very possessive of their roles and responsibility to the point they sometimes go past the post and they start clawing into what I would deem a council territory,” he said. “Council needs to set the service targets, determine the degree of transparency and then management’s job is to do their absolute best to meet the council policy.

“If council policy can’t be met because of current resources, then the job of management is to make that argument, come back to council and say if you want that achieved, we’d need to increase resources.”

The basis of the March 21 discussion was a presentation on how the Town’s planning department has evolved its processes in recent years turned into who sets service levels – council or staff.

The larger discussion highlighted what is common among municipalities in a push-and-pull between the two sides in an always ongoing power dynamic.

David Siegel, a political science professor emeritus from Brock University in Ontario with more than 40 years of studying and researching public policy and local governance, said it is normal for municipal staff to make recommendations on service levels.

Those recommendations can give council options in making a decision, “but it’s up to council to decide whether council wants to accept that advice from staff or not.”

Siegel said it is important for staff to outline the cost implications for council in determining service levels to understand if they want to decrease, maintain or increase service levels. But determining those service levels and approving the resources is council’s decision, while municipal staff are to attain those goals.

“It’s always a bit of push-and-pull since you don’t want council micromanaging what staff is doing. In some ways to have council set the service levels and then tell staff we want you to manage so you provide this service, that’s the kind of thing council should be doing and not take the next step of we’re going to tell you how to manage. That’s inappropriate, but it’s appropriate for council to set the service levels and expectations,” Siegel said.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be the council that sets the budget. There’s no argument about that and that’s going to determine service levels. … If staff wants to push council to the wall on something, council’s always going to win.”

In the case of planning, Siegel said provincial rules outlined in the MGA will always take precedence over what a local council might want to do or achieve.

He noted, though, it’s a good process for municipalities to discuss service levels since it’s not always the case.

“My experience is not nearly enough municipalities talk about service levels as they should. … Standards are a function of the budget allocation. Ultimately council decides that and staff might push back and say ‘you realize if you cut the budget here, we want you to realize what’s going to happen with service levels in that area’,” Siegel said. “The idea of staff asserting they have a right to make decisions about service levels shouldn’t come into play.”

Duane Bratt, a political scientist from Mount Royal University in Calgary, said it’s common for new council members to take time to learn the ropes of municipal governance, while staff can be fixtures for years , even decades.

“While council may set policy, they often do it on the advice of administration,” he said. “They make recommendations and council supports or doesn’t support it. When you’ve got administration pushing back on council on various matters, there’s a dialogue that exists.”

However, with staff being hired and council members voted in, the level of accountability dictates council sets the major decisions of the municipality.

“Councillors can often feel like they’re being managed by senior administration,” Bratt said. “It’s council’s job to provide the broad perimeters of a policy and it’s up administration to implement that. To say it’s up to the administration to set service levels, they’re not accountable. They’re not on a ballot. It should be council.

“At the end of the day, the councillors are the ones who are accountable. … They set the larger perimeter policy and it’s up to administration to follow directions and implement them as opposed to council debating every little change to a house.”

Mount Royal University political scientist Keith Brownsey echoed other governance experts in it being council’s role to set parameters and framework, but allow administration to implement the policies, guidelines and regulations.

He said the system is meant to be more arm’s length to avoid municipal staff getting into the business of council and council members trying to guide specific planning projects step-by-step.

“People have studied these and feel it’s much more objective. You don’t want to get too far into this because there’s room for things to go wrong. Not that it would, but there’s room for it,” he said.

“It’s up to administration to ensure that those service levels are met.”

However, he said where it can become an issue is if council members overreach with attempting to become too involved.

“You elect a councillor. They’re well meaning people and they sometimes come in and have issues they want to deal with, but sometimes they don’t know the process,” Brownsey said. “If a city councillor says ‘let’s have another look at this’ whatever it may be. I think administration is obliged to assist. It’s pretty straightforward.”

Development and planning in Canmore has long been a methodical process, with multiple factors from the environment, wildlife, high groundwater and undermining all playing a role in whether projects get the nod of approval.

According to MGA requirements, a development permit is deemed complete after 20 days and a decision must be reached before the 40-day mark. Subdivision is 20 days to be deemed complete and 60 days for a decision.

As of March 24, Canmore planning timelines average review time for low-density residential is 66.9 days and 116.8 days for medium- to high-density residential, commercial and industrial applications

If a development permit or subdivision application isn't finished in the MGA required timeline, an extension is either agreed to or an applicant can go to the Town’s Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.

Building permits have no legislated review timeline and municipalities are able to set their own service review timelines that surpass the MGA.

Though Canmore staff asked council to redirect concerns when constituents or businesses reach out to council, Cuff said it’s common for the public to reach out to elected representation.

“If you want to get action fairly quickly, you reach out to the mayor based on the trickle down theory to aim at the top. … You start at the top and see where it lands,” he said. “Absolutely it’s legitimate that the average public isn’t represented by the departmental staff. They’re represented by mayor and councillors. The fact the public reaches out to the mayor and wants to know what’s happening with a development is absolutely legitimate.

“How the mayor (and council) responds is up to the mayor (and council) since they can pass it over to management and find out why something’s taking long, where it’s at, and the mayor can pass that information along to the person who’s questioning it.”

Though it may seem minor, the establishment of defined roles is important for a functioning government to set policy and direction.

Cuff said he has a high level of respect for municipal staff, but also respect for councils that avoid being “managed by management.”

“Management is to follow council. Administration follows policy,” he said. “It is not the reverse. If it ever gets the way that it’s reversed, your system’s out of control.”

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks