Ah, summertime. The season most loved by teenagers far and wide. School is out, the beaches and parks are calling, the sound of skateboard wheels clicking across sidewalks is as common as the sounds of birds chirping. What could possibly be better than being a teenager during summer break? Where would a teenager rather be than by the water in July? How about a council meeting?
While his older brother is working at a camp in Muskoka in preparation for his second year of college, my younger son Zack has been spending some of his summer vacation in Meaford this week. Both of my boys love escaping the much bigger city that they live in to come to Meaford to hang out with dad. They love the waterfront, they love the community, and they love the freedom that small towns allow.
Naturally, Zack and I made time for some fun this week in between my work schedule with trips to the Bruce County Museum in Southampton, and to the Bruce Nuclear Visitor Centre near Tiverton, where they have a replica control room perfect for teenage fans of Homer Simpson. But imagine my surprise when I asked Zack if he wanted to tag along on Monday night while I went to cover a council meeting – and he said he'd love to.
And so, all the fun stuff aside, my 14 year-old accompanied me to the council meeting, and he sat there quietly watching and listening as council moved from one agenda item to the next. During this particular meeting he witnessed a (rather colourful) public zoning meeting, a presentation to council by the new detachment commander for Grey County OPP, he saw representatives from minor hockey asking council to consider offering lower ice time rates that could help their struggling organization along, and he heard councillors discuss exciting topics like water meters and accessibility standards.
Prior to the meeting I had given him a brief lesson in municipal governance, and I had explained the basics of how council meetings are conducted, and he was actually quite interested (reminder to parents, never underestimate teenagers).
After the meeting, I asked Zack for his thoughts about his first experience at a council meeting, and while I was expecting to hear how boring it was (which I did hear, but not until much later in the conversation), his answers actually surprised me (again, never underestimate teenagers).
Here are Zack's initial thoughts about attending his first council meeting:
“It was really organized and orderly.”
“They seemed to focus on important things.”
“A lot of it didn't make much sense.”
“The fire was cool.” (I will explain)
“The chairs were so uncomfortable.”
That his first thought was that council meetings are organized and orderly is a testament to our system as that is exactly what they should be. That a lot of it didn't make much sense is a testament to reality, as even for seasoned reporters there are often things that take place at council meetings that don't seem to make much sense. The fire – well, it was actually just smoke that billowed from one of the Clerk's computers just as the meeting was about to start, and yeah, if I was 14, I would have probably thought that was 'cool' too. As for the comfort of the chairs, don't even get me started, though I did tell him that, lucky for him, at roughly three hours, it was a short(ish) meeting.
When I asked Zack what he thought were the best and worst things about the council meeting, he responded that he enjoyed seeing how it all worked, but even at a short three hours, the worst thing according to Zack was that 'it was sooo long'.
What did he learn? According to him, he learned that municipal governance is 'complicated' and that there are a lot of 'issues', more than he had expected, and finally he said with a laugh that he learned 'don't go back'. Ah, from the mouths of babes.
But he's right. Municipal governance, while not exactly 'rocket surgery' (to quote a favourite comedian), it is complex, and it can often seem to move at a snail's pace. And Zack is also correct in his observation that there are many different issues that municipal councils must deal with, and not all of it is exciting, or even interesting, but it still needs to get done.
As for learning the lesson to 'not go back', at 14 I had similar thoughts about government and politics, but just two years later I had joined the 'junior' version of a political party and was volunteering on my first federal election campaign. It was just the first of many federal and provincial election campaigns for which I would volunteer my time in the years to come. Just eight years later at 24 years old I ran for council myself, and now a few decades later I live and breathe municipal governance, and reporting on council is a major part of my weekly routine. So while 14 year-old Zack might not see himself returning to a council chamber any time soon, we all know that the world looks a lot different when you're in your forties than it did when you were 14.
Overall, I think Zack enjoyed his trip to the council chamber – he certainly didn't complain. Then again, I suspect he won't beg to go back.