“It's a short agenda, should be a quick meeting,” my friend from the Express said to me as we were setting up at the media table prior to Monday's council meeting.
“Well, the first intake of the community grants is on the agenda so...” I responded.
Face palm. “Oh right, I forgot.”
Monday's council meeting lasted three hours and 15 minutes from start to finish, and just four minutes shy of two hours of that was spent by council trying to dole out the first intake of this year's community grant fund to 22 applicants (two others were identified by staff as not meeting eligibility requirements prior to the council meeting). Those 22 applicants had requested $52,105 in grant funding, and with just $36,000 available in the first intake (the total fund for the year is $45,000, distributed in two intakes). Council should have had to make just three decisions for each application: does it meet the eligibility requirements? is the amount requested reasonable and in line with historical precedent? how much do we grant?
With just three decisions per applicant, and with 22 applicants to consider, if council had simply stuck to the established policy, the entire exercise could have, and should have been completed in 45 minutes.
Even the decision of how much to award each applicant could have been a relatively speedy process had Councillor Jaden Calvert's suggestion to knock 30 percent off of each request across the board as a start point given that the amount requested exceeded what was available by 30 percent, not been ignored.
What the members of the public and those in the media endured for those two hours was not much different than what has taken place each and every year previously as councillors agonized over a majority of the grant requests, and phrases like “fine line”, and “splitting hairs” were bandied about with such frequency that they echoed in my brain well into the next day.
That council agonizes over these community grant requests shouldn't be a surprise. That council often tries to find a way to “split hairs” in order to approve a grant request because 'well, gosh golly, they're such a good organization' is quite understandable. As I've written before, councillors by their nature are engaged citizens in their community. They tend to be involved in many local groups and initiatives, and those are the kinds of people we should want on council. That isn't to suggest that councillors individually or collectively show preference to particular grant applicants, because they don't, they genuinely seem to want to assist all applicants in some way. But part of the reason councils agonize over these grant requests is perhaps two-pronged – they're personally too close to the action (again, as we should want them to be), and secondly because they are in the business of gathering votes – and who wants to annoy one group or another group over silly little community grants when that could cost votes?
I really don't blame council for the agonizing and excessive amount of time spent on these grants each time it's on the agenda, but I do blame council for having rejected (after initially approving) a solution to the problem that could have been a win for everyone – handing the task over to a third party.
In October of 2015 I wrote an editorial entitled Council Foolish to Reject Third Party Administration of Community Grant Fund, after council had voted against an offer from the Community Foundation Grey Bruce (which is in the business of administering grant funds) to take the task off of council's (and municipal staff's) hands at a cost of roughly $2,500. Today, a year and a half later I continue to believe they were foolish, given that little has changed.
I wrote the following in 2015:
The community grant program is an important one for local organizations, which host various events for the community and could use a few extra bucks to help their events succeed, but it is a huge pain in the you know where for council and staff to deal with each year.
In recent years, council, in spite of having a policy on the books, has chosen to ignore the rules and instead gave grants to organizations that didn't qualify, and it handed short straws to organizations that did qualify.
The fact that council couldn't follow the extremely basic rules was the very reason for the overhaul of the program to begin with, yet council doesn't want to trust an outside organization whose sole function is administering grant funds to community groups, and they do it very well.
Rather than turn the task over to to a third party, council approved a revised policy and procedure for the community grant fund program, and even with a revised policy that they voted to approve, council still struggles with these grant funding requests, and again, who could blame them? Would you want to have to vote no against a grant funding request from a fantastic local organization because their funding request doesn't quite meet the eligibility requirements? Not likely. But a third party can be more objective. A third party wouldn't have an emotional connection, or a fear of losing a few votes in the next election.
If council doesn't like the eligibility requirements that they approved, or if they would like to see some of those “fine lines” and “splitting hairs” scenarios tidied up, then certainly they should have a discussion about making revisions. That is council's job.
But the decisions on the grant requests should be black and white and void of emotion. An applicant either meets the requirements of the program, and is therefore eligible for the funding they are requesting, or they are not. Period.
Perhaps council should take a second look at passing the task off to a third party. It will cause them fewer headaches, and I'm sure that the staff time that is required to administer the program costs significantly more than the few thousand dollars that we'd pay a third party.