Did you know Hamilton City Council no longer has a youth advisory committee?
You probably didn’t, because City Council says it has one, only there is nobody on it.
The Youth Advisory Committee quietly ended at the beginning of this term of Council, for a number of reasons – not all of which rests on the shoulders of present City Council, some of the fault lies with Council’s relationship with former Mayor Bob Bratina, Bratina, and current Mayor Fred Eisenberger.
A disclosure, I sat on the pre-amalgamation Hamilton youth committee from 1998 to 2000.
2000: No Youth Advisory Committee in New City of Hamilton
We’ll start with Council’s priorities in 2000. Youth wasn’t one of them, while a series of advisory committees were created for the concerns of adults and seniors, the youth committees of the former Hamilton ended. Youth committees continued in Ancaster and Stoney Creek, but had no formal relationship with or advisory role to City Council, and slowly declined into irrelevance.
It wasn’t until mid-2006, in a staff report on youth demographics and outcomes, that the lack of a youth advisory committee was formally identified as area of concern.
A few months later in 2006, staff returned to Council with a report recommending the creation of a Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). Council approved the creation of the committee, and assigned it to Community Services.
2007: A Youth Advisory Committee is Formed
A year later in November 2007, the committee held its first meeting with Mayor Eisenberger starting the meeting.
For the next year, YAC was regularly visited by councillors and staff, including two members of the City’s senior management team.
However, in late 2009 into 2010, the group was increasingly isolated from City Hall. Meetings were held away from City Hall, councillors rarely attended, and the City didn’t bring any relevant consultation to the Committee.
By mid-2010, the committee was struggling to retain members and its agendas turned into an endless exercise of asking youth to define their own role in the City and trying to get them to organize events.
Compare How Seniors are Important
It’s important to contrast how the Youth Advisory Committee was handled by City Hall compared to the Seniors Advisory Committee.
On the first Friday of each month, at 10am, the Seniors Advisory Committee meets in Room 192 of City Hall.
Whereas the monthly Seniors Advisory Committee meeting is held at City Hall, is attended by City Councillors, is frequented consulted by senior City management, and is allowed to request staff to attend on matters; by 2010, the Youth Advisory Committee was lucky to have two staff members present – a front line staff member assigned to youth, and a mid-level manager.
Nothing gets a higher priority at City Hall than the Seniors Advisory Committee. I dare you to organize an event at the same time as SAC at City Hall, you can’t.
In contrast, the YAC was rarely consulted on major matters, its reports buried in the Emergency and Community Services agenda, and with no direct connection to City Hall, whatever they asked for was not heard, and thus ignored.
By mid-2010, the Committee was effectively dead in the water, with only one YAC member attending the May meeting.
2010 Bratina Gets Involved as Mayor
Bob Bratina became Mayor in December 2010, and one of his first priorities was addressing youth engagement.
He sought to have the Youth Advisory Committee made a Mayor’s Advisory Committee – similar to the very successful Burlington model – with a reporting relationship to Council.
Council being Council, they fought this idea due to the personality dynamics of the second floor of City Hall. Put more bluntly, Council fought Bratina over something they didn’t care for, just to spite Bratina.
Bratina stubbornly moved forward with his new Mayor’s Youth Advisory Committee, and Council officially kept the existing Youth Advisory Committee. (If you’re thinking about two parents in a divorce, so am I)
Bratina’s YAC met regularly supported by his office, but the meetings were not public and Bratina never brought forth any recommendation from the group to Council.
The City’s official YAC continued to meet in various locations outside of City Hall. It lost members to the Mayor’s YAC, and failed to make quorum for most of 2011. Eventually meeting were held in the the basement of Lister Block once it opened in 2012, and YAC was quietly forgotten about and neglected.
Around the same time, the City’s Economic Development Department and Council launched a new youth engagement group: the Hamilton Hive.
Well-funded and marketed, the group grew rapidly and many youth who may have joined YAC became engaged with Hive.
Hive was designed to advance the City’s economic priorities, and not an advisory group to Council; nonetheless, it had the appearance of being the City’s official youth group, and this further decreased the role of YAC. When politicians sought to engage with youth, they now went to Hive.
If you’re keeping track, there’s now the Mayor’s youth committee, YAC, and Hive.
There were other groups in the community attracting engaged youth – a notable example being the Hamilton Community Foundation Youth Advisory Committee – with meaningful opportunities to enact change.
YAC’s Momentary Revival and Final Downward Spiral
In 2012, new youth joined the committee. Two members of YAC stood out as, for a brief period of time, the Committee became lively and began to come into its own.
Jackson Virgin-Holland and Alex Ramirez came to the committee with clear articulate visions of what they sought to achieve, and the role of the committee.
Ramirez wanted YAC to take positions on big civic matters; more strongly than, but not dissimilar to, other Council advisory committees. Ramirez began to push YAC to take a stand against Aerotropolis. This died as YAC failed to make quorum for the coming months, and upon graduating from McMaster, Ramirez’s time on YAC ended.
Virgin-Holland wanted YAC to establish itself as a mandatory step of consultation for city staff on civic visioning, planning, and policy formation. He had strong vision, and became chair. The challenge he faced was that YAC was so disconnected from City Hall, that it was nearly impossible to make any headway on doing so.
Other youth came and went.
Virgin-Holland is a doer, but increasingly, YAC was getting filled by young people with ambitions elsewhere; many focused on gathering as many bullet points as their resume as possible to boost their university applications. (Which is a whole other issue of how we demand youth complete check-lists and then complain about them doing so.)
In 2013, the final spiral began. YAC couldn’t make quorum, and each meeting agenda was focused on creating a vision or mandate for YAC. Community Services staff weren’t equipped with the experience to create a political advisory committee, and the youth needed some guidance on what they could do, before determining their mandate would be.
Cam Galindo, who would run in 2014 for City Councillor in Ward 9, began pushing for YAC to be renamed the “Hamilton Youth City Council” with members getting the title of “Youth City Councillors”, and for one of them to be named the “Youth Mayor of Hamilton”.
Galindo argued new titles would attract youth seeking to more fully engage in City Hall governance, issues, and increase the profile of members enabling them to more effectively push for change.
Virgin-Holland argued that YAC should focus on gaining the same footing as the City’s other advisory committees, and that effective engagement would attract more youth members; that the issues facing YAC would not be remedied by changing the name plates.
As this debate about YAC continued, new youth who joined YAC discovered YAC wasn’t doing much more than talking about YAC.
After spring 2013, YAC failed to make quorum ever again. While Virgin-Holland faithfully attended and worked to more YAC forward, but he often found himself the only one in attendance.
By May 2014, it was clear to City Hall that YAC was in need of a serious reboot and stronger support. This would wait until after the Fall 2014 municipal election.
2015 Reboot Attempt
Shortly after the election, Councillor Tom Jackson and Senior Advisor to the Mayor Chris Cutler took on addressing how to fix YAC; they brought in Neighbourhood Development Office Director Paul Johnson to coordinate staff support.
They reached out to YAC past and present members of YAC for their feedback and advice.
DISCLOSURE: I was consulted as a former member of the old City Mayor’s youth advisory group. My suggestions were to move YAC to meeting at City Hall, and that if a matter was being referred to Seniors’ Advisory, it should also be sent to YAC.
In February 2015, after much effort and communications, the City held a meeting of YAC at City Hall.
Only three members showed up: Virgin-Holland, Galindo, and one other youth.
DISCLOSURE: I was present both as a journalist and invited to share how the previous City of Hamilton Mayor’s youth committee worked.
The City sent Councillor Tom Jackson, Paul Johnson, Chris Cutler, and other City staff to the meeting as resources for the youth.
In this meeting, YAC officially voted to rename itself to the Hamilton Youth City Council, and decided it would no longer be an official advisory committee.
The new title was incompatible with the role of an advisory committee. YAC had to officially ask Council to disband the advisory committee to allow for the creation of a “Youth City Council” that would be supported by the City’s Community Services Division.
These changes required Council approval, and it was decided at the February meeting to hold a meeting in March to finalize the request to Council.
The March meeting rolled around, and only Virgin-Holland was in attendance. That was the end of YAC. Virgin-Holland, after years of tireless effort, was onto his university studies, and the other members had failed to attend enough meetings to retain their seats.
Hamilton’s Youth Advisory Committee was left with no members, and the recommendations went to Council as a non-actionable information update.
Mayor Eisenberger Takes Over The File
Behind the scenes, discussions begin on the second floor of City Hall about what to do about the lack of youth engagement, and the failure of YAC.
Councillor Tom Jackson sat down with Chris Cutler, and they agree that Cutler will take the lead on the file on behalf of Mayor Eisenberger.
The goal is to launch a new youth advisory group with the Mayor’s office taking the lead, supported by City staff.
Cutler meets with numerous stakeholders, youth across Hamilton, and City staff. A report is promised for Spring 2016. This gets moved back to Fall 2016.
Today, Spring 2017, the status of the Mayor’s report is not publicly available.
And that’s the status of youth non-engagement at City Hall.
CORRECTION: Earlier versions of this story stated YAC was supported by Recreation staff; the area of support reported to a Director of Recreation, but is more accurately described as Community Services within the City’s organizational structure.
Post-Script: additional reading on this topic can be found in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Municipal Youth Engagement Handbook.