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This past Thursday, at its Governance and Priorities Committee, Council met to review the City’s strategic priorities for the remainder of the 2013-2015 budget cycle. But it was also an opportunity for councillors to bring forward projects they’d been working on, that didn’t fit easily into our regular meeting business. Marianne Alto put forward a motion which required Council to make a really hard decision. Late Thursday night, as I was reflecting on the decision we’d made that day, it struck me what it takes for a governing body to set a goal and remain focused on that goal until it is achieved.

I don’t think we made a good decision last Thursday. Thankfully, the decision isn’t final until it’s ratified at our formal Council meeting this Thursday February 13th. So I’m taking this opportunity to lay out my thoughts about making a commitment to a goal, comprehensive decision making, and long-term thinking with the hopes that readers, including some of my Council colleagues, might consider this approach.

Here’s the story. (You can also watch the whole thing unfold for yourself here where the meeting is video archived.) Marianne Alto has been working with members of the Vic High Alumni Association who want to undertake a $5 million capital project to refurbish the Vic High track, bleachers, and field. Alto put forward a motion asking for the City to endorse the project in principle, to allocate staff and Council time to work with the school and the alumni association to explore and pursue other partnerships and to make a matching contribution of up to $250,000 in 2015. 

In the hour-long debate that ensued, city staff noted that a significant amount of staff time that would be involved, even just in negotiating a “joint-use agreement” to ensure that the refurbished facility would be open to the public. In addition, the City’s Director of Finance stressed that there was not $250,000 available in the 2015 capital budget and the money would have to come from somewhere. The Director of Finance also warned that even if the City endorsed the project in principle without providing any matching funds, we’d be in a bit of an awkward position when it came to writing letters of support for provincial and federal funding for the Vic High Alumni track refurbishment project.

Here’s the kicker. Last fall Council voted to keep Crystal Pool as a publicly owned and operated facility. This means that in order to refurbish or rebuild Crystal Pool, the City will need to apply for provincial and/or federal infrastructure funding should it become available. This means that the City would be in direct competition with Vic High if federal and/or provincial infrastructure grants for refurbishing or building recreation facilities become available.

After being amended at least four times and watered down to ensure that little staff time was spent on this endeavour, the motion – including a $250,000 matching contribution at some point in the future and support in principle for the project – passed 7 to 2. I voted against it as did Councillor Gudgeon. Most of the people who voted last fall to keep Crystal Pool publicly owned and operated (Fortin, Alto, Isitt, Madoff, Thornton-Joe) voted in favour of the Vic High project.

Here’s my thinking. This was a difficult decision. We want to honour the tireless work of the Vic High Alumni Association volunteers who are undertaking the capital fundraising campaign. And we’d love to have a newly refurbished track facility in Fernwood. I’d certainly like this, I live (literally!) two doors away from the site.

But we passed a motion last fall and made a commitment to the public to keep Crystal Pool publicly owned and operated. I didn’t even support that motion and have clearly articulated a creative hybrid vision for the future of Crystal Pool. But we made a commitment and we have to keep our focus as a Council on the goal of refurbishing or rebuilding a publicly owned and operated swimming pool. With limited infrastructure monies available from senior levels of government, we can’t approve projects that directly compete with each other. We can’t make decisions in silos. In order to get things done we need to be comprehensive in our decision making and keep the big-picture, long-term vision in mind.

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