If we can reform how Ward Councillors and Ward Committees work, then in time we can form coalitions with other ward platforms across the city and move to reform how Councillors work in the the higher structures of Council to ensure that as many decisions as possible are made in a public way by elected Councillors at a level that is appropriate for the people who will be affected. Informed by mandates taken in local Ward Assemblies and Ward Committee meetings, our Councillors must play an active role deliberating and making decisions representing our interests in the Subcouncil, in Committees of Council and in full Council meetings.
As we push to take charge and reclaim local democracy, we must be mindful that our City is divided spatially. We must be mindful that some might wish to take more local control in order to put forward ideas that are unconstitutional, racist and exclusionary, or short sighted. We cannot build a socially just, economically equitable and environmentally sustainable city and society if each ward only looks after its own interests. Some decisions require us to come together across wards to ensure that we decide how to spend City resources in a fair and equitable way that helps to transform the city as a whole. So some decisions, such as where to deploy law enforcement or where to build affordable housing must be made at higher levels.
The reality is, that if a majority of wards established Ward Platforms and elected local residents as Councillors, we would be able to ensure these higher structures are alive with democratic debate, deliberate and ultimately negotiation and compromise and our Councillors would be required to work in coalitions to ensure that fair and equitable decisions are made that benefit their constituencies and the majority of people.
Subcouncils should be one of the most important governance structures in the City because they bring together Councillors from all the Wards to make decisions on issues that are particular to the region and require cooperation to resolve, informed by decisions that have been made in Ward Committees and mandates that have been adopted in Ward Assemblies. If empowered, this could include:
- A defining role in deciding what capital projects to prioritise in the City’s annual budget in the area of its jurisdiction.
- The redistribution, disposal, management and use of public land not allocated for citywide transformation projects, including granting tenure security to informal settlement residents, leasing for community use.
- Where budget has been allocated towards advancing the right to housing, decisions regarding the specific programmes and locations for investment that would distribute housing opportunities fairly across the Wards and benefit the most people.
- Management of regional support services such as mental health and trauma, support for survivors of rape and gender based violence, homelessness.
- The provision of basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity.
- Regional safety and law enforcement.
Committees of Council
Councillors sitting in the Committees of Council should be responsible for the development and adoption of policy and by-laws to be put before Council. Committees should be responsible for holding Mayoral Committee members and the relevant line departments within the Administration to account for their performance.
Too many decisions that are taken in Party Caucuses behind closed door are rubber stamped in Council. Full Council should meet more regularly to debate policy and the decision before it before voting. Councillors must report back to Ward Assemblies on the decisions and votes that they took and how they aligned with mandates that were given.
Many public officials working in the administration take a very poor view of Councillors. They see them as self-serving, corrupt and interfering in the work of the administration and there are powerful officials who would see any attempt at giving Councillors more decision making powers as a problem and decisions should be handed over to technocrats and professionals within the administration.
There is an orthodoxy that has become entrenched in public administration which holds that once Councillors delegate their power to the Executive Mayor, Mayoral Committee and senior officials in the administration, then they should relinquish all attempts to influence those decisions. The orthodoxy holds that the only opportunity Council should be given to steer the vision and administration of the City rests in the development and adoption of the 5 year integrated development plan which all new Councils must pass once elected and the annual adoption of the budget. This idea stems from the belief that Council is simply implementing this plan. Councillors should not be giving any instructions directly to officials. Effectively the only way to address issues in your ward is to gain the attention of the Executive Mayor who must instruct the City Manager who would in turn instruct the relevant line departments and staff.
As it stands, Councillors have almost no decision powers and so the system requires them to use whatever influence they can summon to influence decisions both within the political realm and the administration. Councillors are constantly trying to upend the order of things so that they can serve their constituents and this is seen as a problem rather than them doing their work.
This results in unelected and obscure officials that are hidden from public scrutiny within the administration being gifted an overwhelming amount of decision making power. The idea that technocrats make more equitable and rational decisions is simply not true – any bureaucracy tends to want to maintain its power and influence. The reality is that the people who make the most influential decisions about our wards are not accountable to the public in any way. Like everyone, officials have their own class and race prejudices.
The solution does not lie in less power for Councillors. It lies in greater local democracy and decision making power for Councillors. We cannot hope that they will always make good decisions or will not act corruptly. But we can ensure that these decisions are taken in the public eye so that Councillors can be held accountable.
In turn, the administration should be reorganised in order to provide administrative support at Subcouncil and Ward level to help implement the decisions that have been made. Officials in the administration should simply administer, not decide – their power must be limited to providing competent and expert advice; the co-ordination and implementation of decisions that are taken; procurement, tendering and performance tracking; and the daily management and implementation of City services.