Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Greater Sudbury Going Off the Rails Again with Strategic Planning Process

Here we go again - or should I say, here we go off the rails again.

I read with interest a recent article published in Sudbury dot com about the upcoming Strategic Planning Process that the City was about to embark on (see: "Jan. 8 council meeting is all about the future," sudbury dot com, December 31, 2018).  Having studied Strategic Planning in University, and having led a couple of low-key strategic planning sessions for community organizations, and having been a critic of the Strategic Planning process followed by the newly elected Council in 2015, I decided to see what kind of process the City would be using this time - and where I, and others like me, might fit into it.

The answers to my questions are, in my opinion, simply shameful.  The process to be used this time around appears to be quite similar: a visioning session for Council, based on inputs from staff.  And where does the public fit in?  Looks like we've already done our part - by electing this Council to office.  That's it.

Let me explain why this is simply unacceptable.

Greater Together

In 2015, Council engaged in a Strategic Planning Process that lead to the production of a document called "Greater Together: 2015-18 Corporate Strategic Plan".  Like other municipal strategic plans, the purpose of this plan was to provide direction for municipal decision-makers and the corporation on a number of priority areas identified by...well, that's the heart of the issue, and I'll come back to it.

Here's what Mayor Brian Bigger had to say back in 2016 in the Introduction of "Greater Together"
Mayor's Statement - from "Greater Together"

Ya, ok - it sounds like pie-in-the-sky fluff stuff.  Why does something like this even matter?

Well, Greater Together certainly did inform Council's direction throughout the 2014-18 term of the last Council.  Much to the detriment of the cohesion of our communities, in my opinion.  You see, without realizing it, Greater Together laid the groundwork for municipal decision-making, and not just from a policy perspective, but in terms of process.  

No Public Engagement to Inform the Plan

In a nutshell, my beef has been that after Greater Together, Council went off on its own merry way in pursuit of what it thought were the best interests of the City and we citizens without actually engaging citizens in the decision-making process.  Not only were citizens shut out of the development of the Strategic Plan - a big no-no for any strategic plan, in my opinion - but we citizens were also shut out later decision-making processes, including those that led to the selection of various large projects.

In the Intro, above, Bigger talks a lot about what citizens want. I understand that members of Council have a pretty good idea of what the priorities of citizens generally tend to be - but let's face it: members of council, like all individuals, come to the table with inherent biases.  That's in part why listening to what the public has to say on certain and specific issues is so important.  Listening won't remove those biases, but it will provide a significant opportunity to actually hear a contrary point of view - one that we often filter out through less, shall we say, formal or robust consultation processes.

I'm firmly of the belief that a sincere effort to engage the public as part of the 2015 Strategic Planning process would have led to a different plan than the one that was ultimately adopted by Council.  Look, there's some good stuff in Greater Together, I won't deny that - but is it the right stuff, from a citizen or taxpayer perspective?  

Real Citizen Priorities?

Here's the Plan's performance measures.  I think that many might be interested to discover that the success of the Strategic Plan will not be predicated on a number of things which I think taxpayers in the City might have told Council that they would want to see, had they ever been asked.


Greater Together - Performance Metrics
One missing item that jumps out at me would be a desire to see tax increases kept to a minimum.  Although that's certainly not my priority (I believe that property tax increases have to be sustainable - but with rising prices, we should expect modest increases if we demand the same or better level of services), but I from what I hear and see on social media, I expect that my fellow citizens would have wanted the City to make a clear commitment either not to raise taxes, or to at least keep them in line with the rate of inflation.

Instead, we've got what we've got - including "Better Roads", which is a desire that I that I often hear expressed by Greater Sudburians.  But I also often hear that we need "Better transit".  And better winter maintenance.  And more affordable places for people to live.  And, well, lots of things - so how is it that one of these - Better Roads - gets singled out as a performance metric, while just about everything else outside of happiness and economic growth (ugh!) get left out?  Had the public been at the table, I think that we might have seen a different set of Performance Metrics developed to measure the success of the term of Council.

And, as an aside, I expect that with a different set of Performance Metrics in place, Council might actually have been able to point to the Strategic Plan and be able to make the claim that they did, in fact, achieve success - because it's pretty clear to me that, based on these metrics, the last term of Council can only be described as a terrible failure.

Building Support for Priorities from the Ground Up

Back to the Plan.  Let's take a look at some of these Council developed priorities.  When we do, we'll start to see just where and how things went off the rails for Council and for the City.  And as we go through this Strategic Plan, keep in mind that there was a parallel planning process underway around about the same time (albeit one that culminated after Greater Together was completed), that led to "From the Ground Up: gs2025" - the City's Economic Development Plan, which in part built on some of these ideas.  The Economic Development Plan, unlike the Strategic Plan, was informed by significant public consultation and engagement  ('community hijacks' had nothing to do with terrorist strikes!) - and it has a different flavour to it, and identifies priorities that are slightly different (apparently, the Plan is no longer available online - maybe because it includes action items that are so strongly divergent from those undertaken by the City over the past several years - like taking the arena out of the downtown.  If you'd like, here's my blog from 2016 where I offer my critique of the Plan).

Here are the priorities Council identified for Economic Growth.  Suffice it to say that my own personal bias has always been to prefer sustainability over growth, but I get that I remain in a (growing) minority on that.  But putting that aside, let's explore these priorities a little more closely.
Greater Together - Priorities - Economic Development

Downtown Development

The Downtown Sudbury Master Plan was a relatively new document at the time that Greater Together was being assembled, having been accepted by the City in 2012.  The Downtown Master Plan was the subject of a significant degree of public engagement as well, so it's not really a surprise to see Council here deciding to championing it (or more accurately, re-committing to it - as it was approved under the previous Council led by Mayor Marianne Matichuk).

But please note something here about the priority highlighted in the green box.  Yes, it's about the Downtown Sudbury Master Plan, but it's also about all 'downtowns' - so it's not just a former City of Sudbury thing.  This commitment was made to downtown Chelmsford, downtown Capreol, etc.  And that, in my opinion, was a really good thing.  And I think looking back over the term of the previous Council, there has been some success in bolstering the urban cores of some of the outlying communities.  The Capreol waterfront redevelopment initiative jumps out at me, as does the Chelmsford Community Improvement Plan.  

But note too that there is a specific reference here to "increase densification by conversion from commercial to residential".  To me, that's very interesting.  I know that the City has long sought to try to figure out ways to get more people living in our walkable, denser urban cores.  They've tried to do this in a number of ways - via community improvement programs that offer incentives for developers; by making it easier to develop in the Downtown core by removing parking requirements for new development, etc.  The official plan even has a specific policy about the use of community amenities to attract residential development.  Amenities like the Sudbury Community Arena (and others).

But really - when push came to shove over the previous term of Council, how many new residential units were created in urban core areas?  Recall that there had been some important projects - including the Brewer's Lofts - that sought to fulfill this 'priority', but when push came to shove, Council opted to tell the developer to take a hike - and today we continue to see the eyesore on Lorne Street that once was Northern Breweries sitting vacant and generating peanuts in terms of property taxes.

That's just one example.  Here's another.  In the spring of 2018, Council actually went out of its way to weaken the residential development strategy in the official plan by removing reference to the Arena.  Ostensibly this was undertaken so that the new plan would be inline with earlier decisions of Council to relocate the community arena to the Kingsway.  So what of those earlier decisions, then?  Made with little regard to the official plan's strategy for attracting residential development to the downtown?  Well, the Strategic Plan seems to suggest that the approach ultimately taken by Council to move the arena out of the downtown was just fine - after all, we're not talking about the conversion of a commercial area to a residential one.  We're talking about a significant tourism generator, right - the sort that seems to fall inline with the priority outlined in the red box.

Large Projects

Ah - now we come to the heart of the matter: investing in Large Projects.  

Where the hell did this come from?

Maybe I missed it, but I don't seem to recall anyone running for Council on a platform of municipal investment in large projects for the purpose of stimulating economic development.  Sure, there'd been talk of a few things like this for years: a new or redeveloped community arena; a motorsports park; a soccer bubble.  But there was never any comprehensive development strategy that talked about municipal investment (that talked about how taxpayers would pay for these amenities). Sure, Council under Matichuk had identified that a new convention facility (arena) and hotel should be located in the downtown - but contingent on a new casino coming to town and footing the bill.  The Downtown Master Plan laid the framework for this initiative.  So what happened?

Council under Mayor Bigger took a different direction - the one spelled out here in Greater Together.  There is a direct link between the Strategic Plan and the Large Projects initiative, through which Council ultimately decided to champion a new taxpayer-funded community arena (without looking further into the costs of redeveloping the existing facility - something the previous Council started doing, and which the Community Services Committee received a report on in June, 2013 - but it suffered a serious blow when Councillor Fabio Belli's motion to expedite a new arena was soundly defeated in October 2013 - see R-27 in the Minutes), and the Place des Arts, Synergy Centre (now the something something something centre/facility/something - can we go back to calling it the Synergy Centre please?) and a new downtown Library (which has been talked about for a long time) and Art Gallery (also talked about for a long while).

These projects were selected by Council through a competitive process that saw a number of other excellent projects being advanced (like the Eat Local Sudbury proposed Local Food Hub - see: "Eat Local Sudbury working to offer more local food in region," CBC News, October 14, 2014) and a few silly ones - like establishing a heavy rail connection between Lively and downtown Sudbury to service - well, that was the problem - to service nobody.

But the Large Projects ultimately selected by Council were selected in absence of any meaningful public input or a public engagement process.  Not once did Council ask the public, are we on the right track here?  Nor did Council ever ask the public, are we doing the right thing here by putting up public money for economic development, as per our Strategic Plan that you didn't have any say in either?

This lack of public consultation about important decisions carried on throughout the term of Council.  About what is sure to become a Case Study in how not engaging with the public leads to a terrible, stupid, dumb economic development outcome (to be titled, "How Sudbury Blew a Sure Thing and Lost a Chromite Smelter"), I wrote that Council had "a nasty habit of making decisions first, and consulting with the public later," (see: "No Social License for Coniston Ferrochrome Smelter," Sudbury Steve May, March 6, 2018).

Public Consultation Matters

Look, public consultation matters.  It could very well be that the City would not now find itself in the midst of appeals related to municipal decisions from June, 2017, that sought to relocate our community arena out of the downtown and into an undeveloped industrial area on the Kingsway.  Those June, 2017 decisions of Council were also not informed by any meaningful public consultation.  Sure, there was one heck of a lot of lobbying going on - but it is precisely because the lobbyists were out that Council ought to have taken a step back and asked itself, "Gee, maybe we should see what members of the community actually want - maybe they'll tell us that they want a new arena on the Kingsway attached to a casino.  Or maybe it'll be a new arena downtown.  Or maybe they'll tell us that what they really want is for us not to spend their money on a facility that we'll be in hock for for the next 35 years."  Of note, of course, that last option was never on the table in June 2017 - because Council had already committed to the Large Projects initiative as per the Strategic Plan.

I happen to think that the mistakes of the previous Council - about to be repeated here by an updated version of Council - have directly led to the divisiveness that we have been experiencing in our City over the past couple of years.  Sure, there have been other factors - but a lack of public input on important decisions has really led to some problematic outcomes.  It might have been that we could have had a new or refurbished arena opening this year, had Council opted to follow the groundwork that had previously been laid through policy documents that had received significant public consultation (and that would be repeated via the From the Ground Up Economic Development Plan process).  And the City could have still been in the running for a ferrochrome smelter today had it opted to work with the public, rather than without it.

This stuff matters.  We've lost the opportunity to create real jobs.  We've put what many suggest is a much-needed infrastructure project (the arena) on hold while we fight about the location.  And we've created a real and growing divide in our City.  It didn't have to be that way.  And it shouldn't be that way going forward.

A Course Correction is Needed

Look, Council has the opportunity to change course - but time is running out.  According to the Report that is going to Council on January 8, 2019, the Strategic Plan process will be facilitated by Dr. Chris Bart, FCPA.  Dr. Bart is the CEO of Corporate Missions Inc., a company that has worked with numerous businesses and municipal partners to develop strategic plans.  One of those municipal partners was the Town of Oakville, which developed a Strategic Plan in 2015.  In Oakville, their plan was informed by public input.  I don't know exactly what process they used there, but clearly it was something a little more than the nothing that was used here in Greater Sudbury.


Report to Council - Town of Oakville - Strategic Plan
Right now, the plan for Greater Sudbury is for Council to continue going off on its merry way in absence of any input or consultation from the public.  Something called "The Executive Leadership Team" (whatever that is) will have a chance to sit in on and inform the Strategic Plan process - but you and I will be locked out of it.  The Report going to Council next week is pretty clear about what role the public will play: none.


CGS - Report to Council - 2019 Strategic Plan
The Plan right now is that it's Council that will decide what the priorities of the corporation are.  The 13 members of our Council will do so in absence of a formal public engagement process - basing their decision on their own take of where they want to see the City go.  


CGS - Report to Council - Council's Role - Strategic Plan 2019
I hope that someone on Council raises the lack of opportunity for public consultation as an issue which needs to be addressed, going forward.  Other municipalities, like Oakville, plug their citizens into the Strategic Planning process, because they realize that while Council has the responsibility to set priorities, their decision to identify those priorities and how best to plan to achieve those outcomes needs to be informed by public consultation.  The public has to be a part of the process if there is to be local buy-in.

If we're about to embark on another 4-years of Council doing its own thing and shutting the public out of important decisions, I fear that this current Council, too, will only be able to conclude that success - by any measure or metric - was elusive. 

A Footnote About the Downtown

Over the course of the previous term of Council, I've heard some members of Council talking about what the "downtown" is and how we need to start thinking of the "downtown" differently - specifically, how we ought to expand our understanding of the geographic paramertres of the downtown so that, in our minds at least, the "downtown" includes that part of the former City of Sudbury that is roughly within a "square" bounded by Notre Dame on the west, Lasalle Blvd., on the north, Barrydowne on the east, and the Kingsway on the south.  This "new" downtown - which includes a large, undeveloped hole in its middle, thanks in part to a floodplain, wetland and the hills that feed them) should be the focus of the kind of development that we need to grow the City and prepare for the 21st Century.  I've seen this - and I've treated the idea as the nonsense that it is.  To think that this area of the City in any way, shape or form functions as a "downtown" is to dismiss all notion of what a "downtown" actually is or does.

And yet, despite the ludicrousness of the idea, it's right there in the City's Strategic Plan - in the Economic Development section as a Strategic Priority.  .So when Council talks about "the downtown" - or more importantly, when individual members of Council talk about the "downtown", keep in mind that they have not always been talking about the same thing.


CGS Strategic Plan - Strategic Priorities
In the minds of some members of Council, what you see above - the Notre Dame-Lasalle-Barrydowne-Kingsway Square, plus maybe the old downtown - is the Downtown.  The City's official plan identifies a different boundary, of course.  As does the Downtown Master Plan.  As does, frankly, reality.  But this is the sort of thing you get when you don't ask the public to participate in a planning process.  And this is important, too - because not only does it mean that we're all left to define the downtown in any way we want - but we're going to be basing economic development decisions on these definitions when it might not be appropriate to do so.  I get that this concept never really worked its way into any of the City's other official planning documents (like the 5-year official plan update adopted by Council in the spring of 2018), but I can't help but wonder how something like this ever ended up in any Plan in the first place.

And finally, for those following the Arena discussion - note that the Plan all along has been to shut the public out of the process.  Text in the second green box makes it clear - the public will not have any role to play whatsoever in the selection of the large projects.  Off the rails indeed.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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