Fact: Niagara Region Council is made up of 31 individuals. Only 4 are women.
My post last week about an elected Regional Chair featured this paragraph:
First: not only was the motion defeated; at the Corporate Services Committee, the CEO of the chamber, Mishka Balsom, was subjected to many patronizing remarks from Councillors; presumably for her transgression of taking the time to represent her organization’s well-founded hope for change with a good presentation on why an elected Chair is needed. One Councillor asked Ms. Balsom if she understood and could explain how Canadians elected our Prime Minister; another suggested she wasn’t running her organization or communicating with her members correctly. This brow-beating went on for over an hour. A clip (beginning around the 25 minute mark) can be found here. I remind you, this is the representative of the greater business community being told not “thanks, but no thanks” but instead “no, you ignorant incompetent” by our fair Regional Councillors.
I decided to look at Balsom’s presentation and the response from Councillors further. I watched it so you don’t have to, but if you’d like, you can see the video here.
The Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce (GNCC) represents 1,550 businesses throughout Niagara; those businesses employ 45,000 people.It is “the champion of business in Niagara.” Suffice it to say, it is an important organization.
Governance reform has been on the GNCC’s agenda for at least four years now. In a 2013 survey, 80% of the GNCC’s membership supported changing Niagara Region’s governance model to include an elected Regional Chair. In 2014 the GNCC actually asked candidates for Regional Council to commit to this governance reform.
On September 23rd, Niagara Region’s Corporate Services Committee had a motion on their agenda concerning moving towards an elected chair. So, seeing this item on the agenda, the GNCC’s CEO, Mishka Balsom, decided to ask to make a delegation to the Committee. This is common. Walter Sendzik (former CEO), Kithio Mwanzia (former policy director) and others have presented many times on behalf of the chamber at various local councils.
Balsom became CEO of the GNCC in April of this year. Prior to that she founded a successful consulting company and worked in the magazine business. She was chosen over 100 other candidates to be CEO. She’s a successful, qualified person. I’ve met her a few times; she’s a genuinely nice person and a good leader. This was her first time presenting on behalf of the GNCC to a Regional committee or council.
How’d it go?
Balsom presented a good case for why the GNCC wants to see reform, the benefits of an elected chair and how our current system is antiquated compared to other regions.
After a delegation, Councillors have an opportunity to ask questions of the presenters. This typically lasts anywhere from zero to twenty minutes. I recall in January that Kithio Mwanzia presented to St. Catharines Council on behalf of the Chamber on governance reform, which was at the time a ‘hot topic’ of some controversy in St. Catharines. His question period lasted twenty minutes. Balsom was questioned for an hour.
An hour? Why?
There was more to this story than just “Councillors make a bad decision.” Doug Herod wrote a good article in the Standard about Councillors poor reasoning for rejecting governance reform and I’ve covered that angle previously. It has happened in the past that question periods last an hour, but rarely at a Committee meeting, which often has less media presence and thus, less grandstanding, from Councillors.
The real issue, the real embarrassment, of what happened that day was the way Councillors treated Balsom. Four councillors (Quirk, Maloney, Annunziata and Heit) asked standard questions that could be expected. Some agreed with governance reform and some did not but they all asked pertinent questions and did so with a normal, respectful tone. Five Councillors asked insulting or frivolous questions in a patronizing tone.
Who said what?
Let’s keep in mind, this is essentially the “face” of the business community representing the wishes of the business community. She’s an intelligent, successful and respectful woman. She was not chastising Council or Councillors themselves and was not criticizing any of their work. [Some paraphrasing done for clarity below.]
Off to a good start here. Balsom did well to deflect this insulting “question”: “You’re asking me how the political system works? I think we’re all aware of it.”
Volpatti finished by saying there was little interest in the topic, despite Balsom having just said 80% of their membership is very interested in it.
Councillor Bob Gale, Niagara Falls – This is where things really got going. I should point out that Councillor Gale is the Chair of two companies that are GNCC members. You would think this possible conflict would lead him to support Balsom and the GNCC. You would be wrong. Instead he used his political position to question the GNCC’s priorities, its website and its leadership:
- “I’m looking at your website and there’s no transparency; it doesn’t say who’s on the committees. Is that standard?”
- “When was the last time you [GNCC] made a presentation to Council?” And that would have been on what? This issue again? I’m going to suggest to you that this is not an issue in Niagara Falls. I would suggest that your Chamber, and I’ll be strong with what I say, keep your eyes on the prize. You’re in front of us on an issue here…I could stand in front of your members and see if they care about this. You’re here talking about a non-issue. I expect the chamber…” (here Gale was rightfully cut off since he was not asking questions, just telling the presenter how to run her organization.)
- “Is this the most important item you think you should be making a presentation on?” [Balsom says “I saw it on your agenda today…] Gale interrupts: “I got no agenda please.”
- “I support you standing up for what you think is right but I would suggest your members don’t agree with that.”
Reminder: the GNCC shouldn’t be on trial here.
Councillor Andy Petrowski, St. Catharines – Petrowski begins by questioning Balsom and the GNCC’s organization, wondering why the decision to present to Council was made “at the last minute.” Early on Petrowski had to be reminded to keep questions to the presentation, instead of belittling the GNCC or Balsom.
- “I just find it interesting, given our depressed economy, challenged jobs, challenged underemployment, our challenged private sector income, yet you’re in front of us today, you think this is even more burning than those issues and I would even suggest to you your internal issues of communicating with your own members, who’s on your committees and getting your website up to date. You find this to be the burning issue of that?”
- “I was questioning your priorities.”
- “If we had an elected chair, would the candidate receiving the highest votes be the Chair?”
- “I’m just curious to know what powers does the Regional Chair have now. Explain it to me.” [This is similar to Volpatti’s “how do we elect our PM” question. Balsom is forced to “prove” herself by answering simple questions. It is a childish tactic.]
- Maves answers for her: “He doesn’t have any power.” This isn’t true. Maves is a veteran politician, who knows that the Regional Chair is very different than a Councillor, in that it’s a full-time position with dedicated staff support; the Chair also sets the legislative and financial agendas and acts as the “face” of the Region.
- Maves brings up that a Chair could run on a platform that is different than a Councillor’s platform. So how could they work together? This happens literally every municipal election featuring a Mayor and city councillors. The sky has not, yet, fallen. Again, Maves knows this.
- “So the GNCC hasn’t had a conversation about the number of Regional councillors?” This isn’t what’s up for discussion today, so it’s a strange criticism.
- “Whenever this conversation comes up, because it seems instead of concentrating on the business of the Region and improving things so businesses can flourish and create jobs; we want to navel-gaze and focus on internal issues.”
- “Inevitably also right now in municipal politics, there’s no party politics.” (I won’t blame you if your eyes just rolled out of head and across the floor.)
- “If you’re Regional Chair and you’re raising money, inevitably the parties would get involved.” (Balsom: The GNCC is a non-partisan organization and this isn’t what we’re discussing today. This is true, this a detail that would be confronted in the process; Balsom is just asking that the process begins today.) Maves: “so your organization hasn’t had the conversation about the cost of this election, or the party’s being involved in this? It sounds like you haven’t addressed these issues.”
After ten minutes of untruths and spurious questioning, Maves is cut off by the Chair of the committee, David Barrick.
Regional Chair Al Caslin, St. Catharines – Chair Caslin starts off with a paternalistic “Hi Mishka. Tough room.” Ah, the proverbial arm around the shoulder. Then, in just about the most condescending tone possible: “Would it be OK with you if we stopped talking about ourselves and got on with our strategic plan and our focus on prosperity and creating jobs in Niagara?”
With that, Balsom’s hour of grilling comes to an end.
So what does this mean?
At best, this incident shows us that our Council, which is apparently “open for business“, is not even interested in hearing from the business community. If someone as prominent and important as the CEO of the GNCC has their delegation used as an excuse to put their organization and leadership on trial, why would any citizen feel confident sharing their own opinions?
I will leave it to you to decide if her gender played a role in her treatment. What I can say, again, is I have witnessed many occasions that Walter Sendzik, Kithio Mwanzia and other male Chamber representatives presented to local councils just like Balsom did. Rarely are they questioned for as long as Balsom was. They never had their own competency or their organization’s competency questioned. They were not insulted with childish questions.
Leaving aside that Balsom is a woman. Leaving aside she is the face of an important community in Niagara. Leaving aside she’s a successful person. Leaving aside she’s a smart person. Leaving aside she’s a nice person. She’s a person and she deserves dignity and respect from our elected representatives. She did not receive these.
If Niagara is going to progress we need to demand better of our elected representatives. We need diverse, thoughtful and intelligent representation.
But hey, at least they gave themselves a pay raise.