The City’s Heritage Committee is holding secret meetings and contemplating a split from City Hall after months of communication breakdowns and repeated no-shows from committee chair Coun. Phil Moon Son and members of City administration.
In June, former committee chair Mike Vaydik, who has remained de facto chair in light of Moon Son’s absence from the last three committee meetings, met with Mayor Mark Heyck to request that another councillor be appointed in Moon Son’s stead. According to Vaydik, Heyck told him to wait until after this fall’s municipal elections.
In the interim, the committee is postponing further official meetings until a new chair is appointed, and until “Administration presents the new Terms of Reference and provides an orientation on the restructuring of the Heritage Committee and instructions as to how it is to operate.”
Outside of official corridors, however, non-council or admin members of the committee have begun gathering in secret to figure out how to either repair their relationship with the City, or disengage from it. Vaydik says six of the eight non-council committee members attended the first such meeting last week.
He wouldn’t comment on exactly what was discussed. However, the minutes from the committee’s last official meeting, on June 17, give a sense of the fairly radical steps being considered: the committee “wondered if [it] could accomplish more as a stand-alone organization, operating at arm’s-length from City Administration or its Departments but with funding from the City (e.g. special or core grants) and other stakeholders.”
What’s going on?
Vaydik says meaningful engagement from councillors has been a challenge for the four years he’s been on the committee: “I don’t have a scorecard, but I’d say they missed more [meetings] than they made.”
However, the recent challenges seem to have emerged after new committee rules were introduced earlier this year, requiring councillors to chair City committees (This change was to “assist with improvements to communication” and “provide a better connection between Council and the Committee” on spending issues, according to a joint statement sent to EDGE from Moon Son and members of administration.)
Moon Son was appointed chair in January. He showed up for the first meeting, then failed to attend the subsequent three meetings – each time calling the morning of to say he was too busy, says Vaydik.
“I think it shows the disdain with which our committee is viewed,” says Vaydik. “Though to be clear, I’m not pointing fingers saying they’re bad people. I know the time commitments councillors have and wouldn’t expect them to show up at every meeting. But if they’re chair and they’re the one who reports to council, they got to be there.“
Without an official chair, Vaydik has reverted to leading the committee. But without a clear definition of who’s in charge or how the committee should communicate with council, Vaydik claims the committee is having trouble with everything from drafting new rules for heritage building applications to getting permission to spend the roughly $125,000 surplus they’ve accrued over the past several years.
“It’s frustrating for the committee. We invested a lot of our personal time and some of the City’s money in getting a strategic plan ready. We’re making good progress but seem to have a problem getting council and City administration to carry out what we want to do.”
According to Vaydik, Nalini Naidoo, the City’s director of communications, was meant to show up at the last two meetings to brief the committee on the new rules and reporting structure, but failed to show up, with no notice on both occasions.
This was “due to conflicting meetings,” according to the City’s joint statement. The statement went on to note that, “Jeffrey Humble [the City’s director of planning and development] attended the HC meeting in May to briefly outline the prescribed change to the Committee in terms of budget approvals. Following that meeting in June, the HC requested additional information and briefing. As a result a complete orientation of the new committee operations is planned for the next meeting with the chair and other staff in attendance.”
“I made it no secret that I had limited time for the heritage committee,” Moon Son told EDGE when we asked him about his lack of attendance. He had been an “alternate” on the committee prior to 2015, but following Coun. Adrian Bell stepping down from the committee in the early new year and the changes to the committee rules, he became the chair. “I wasn’t originally intended to be the chair… I was put on as the chair by default.”
He told Vaydik at the first and only meeting he attended about his time constraints, he says, and the two agreed that Vaydik would continue acting as chair for a short time. However, there seems to have been a miscommunication about what this agreement meant.
“Phil and I had a non-formal agreement that I would continue on for a transition period while he learned the ropes,” says Vaydik. “But it’s hard to learn the ropes if he doesn’t show up.”
“Obviously there’s a breakdown in communication,” Bell told EDGE when asked to comment on the issue. “There was not a whole lot of communication between council and committee when I was on it. It was pretty much self-sustaining. But now that Mike [Vaydik] is no longer the conduit between the committee and the mayor then it may be a problem and maybe we have to revisit it.”
The City’s take on it (according to the joint statement): “The Committee is currently in transition, Councillor Son is working with the previous chair to determine what the key concerns and issues are. Councillor Son is also working with Administration to determine the best route to move forward considering that there will be many vacancies in the HC in the fall.”
Part of a larger problem
While the tension between the committee and the City has come to a head in recent months, Vaydik says the committee’s had trouble being heard for years.
“For instance we have a plaque program to put up heritage plaques; we’ve got a list of 15 of them, yet we haven’t put one up since I’ve been on the committee. We’ve got a surplus, we got money, we could put all 15 up… It’s so excruciatingly bureaucratic to try getting anything done.”
The problem isn’t unique to the Heritage Committee. A push for the new rules and the reduction of the total number of committees (which, somewhat ironically, led to the recent blow-up between the Heritage Committee and City Hall) followed a set of reports and council reviews between 2011 and 2014 that found, among other things, “members of the committees felt a large disconnect between committee work and the goals and objectives of the City of Yellowknife” and that there was “need for a better understanding of procedures, budget, communications, City Department roles and other key training for a more productive committee.”
The new rules seem to have been an honest attempt by the City to remedy some of these problems. But the implementation of the changes has created a lot of frustration and confusion, at least in the Heritage Committee’s case.
Vaydik, for his part, commended the work that many people from City Administration have done over the years, but commented that most of the time it’s “the newest planner on the block” that gets sent to the committee meetings. “We understand that administration has constraints but what’s happening now is just not good enough… it’s so sad to see [the committee] stymied by lack of interest of the City”
Vaydik wasn’t totally clear on what direction he’d like to see the committee go in the future, but argued that some direction is needed, especially as the committee’s role has been changing.
“I suspect that nobody’s in charge. Normally we report to the Planning and Lands function, and maybe that worked in the days we designated lots of heritage buildings, but that’s not really what we do anymore. Maybe we’d be more comfortable reporting to Community Services. I’m not trying to tell the City how to organize the staff, but we need something different and we need to know who we’re supposed to report to.”
Whatever comes of the secret meetings, it won’t be a simple task to break from City Hall if that’s the direction the committee wants to go. According to the City’s joint statement, “at this time the Heritage Committee is an approved City Committee, unless Council approves a motion changing the City Committees, the status quo remains (that a Heritage Committee will exist)”.