Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Budgets Should be Debated in Public

By Stephen Vance, Editor

On Monday November 4, Meaford councillors met to discuss and debate the first draft of the 2014 budget which had been presented to council the week prior.

The fact that a special meeting was scheduled at the request of Deputy Mayor Harley Greenfield in order to allow councillors a dedicated time to fully discuss the proposed budget and to ask questions of staff relating to the various aspects of the budget was a fantastic idea, however the meeting itself was less than fantastic.

The long silence that followed Mayor Francis Richardson’s cue for councillors to begin asking questions spoke volumes. Even the Deputy Mayor who had requested the special meeting had virtually nothing to ask because, in his own words the majority of his questions had been asked and answered via email over the course of the previous week. Greenfield also noted that while he didn’t agree with all aspects of the budget, he was satisfied with the answers that had been provided by staff.

What items in the budget does the Deputy Mayor not agree with? We can’t possibly know.

After the draft budget had been presented to council on October 28, and with a full council meeting ahead of them, Greenfield told council that he alone had 22 questions about the budget, and so he proposed the additional separate meeting.

Though it would mean an extra meeting for staff and the media to attend, the proposed extra meeting made a lot of sense. It is a shame that members of council chose instead to ask their questions out of the public eye.

Why does it make any difference if councillors discussed the proposed budget via email rather than in a meeting open to the public?

It’s all about transparency, accountability, and the ratepayer’s right to know how members of council are representing them.

Lest anyone forgets, ratepayers are also voters, and how can a voter possibly gauge the performance and representation of their elected councillors, if something as important as a budget is discussed by email, outside of the public eye?

Granted, Mayor Richardson, who clearly recognized that the optics of a budget discussion meeting with virtually no discussion are not great, asked staff to compile and publish all of the questions by council, and the answers given.

Upon arrival to the November 7 public input session at Woodford Hall, the questions and answers were indeed compiled and printed and were available to the public.

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it?

Aside from the fact that it seems incredibly unfair to have asked staff to take the time to compile the questions from seven members of council, as well as the answers given, from a voter’s perspective, the 24 pages of questions and answers are virtually useless.

Why?

In those 24 pages of questions and answers (nearly 100 questions asked by councillors) nowhere does it indicate who asked which questions and why. That isn’t staff’s fault, they should never have been asked to go through the time consuming exercise to begin with.

There are rules about council meetings, and what can and cannot be discussed in closed sessions. I would suggest that seven members of council asking enough questions which when combined with the answers resulted in 24 printed pages was a meeting of council.

As we’ve seen in the news in recent months, if members of a municipal council meet at a restaurant, and the number of councillors present represents a quorum, and they discuss municipal business, the province deems that meeting to be illegal.

How is it any different to have seven members of council asking budget questions, and receiving answers via email not constitute a meeting of council?

Perhaps members of council would suggest that every single email was strictly one on one with a member of staff, and that none of those questions were copied to any of their fellow council members, and the replies from staff were only sent individually to the member of council who asked the question, and technically that wouldn’t be deemed a meeting of council.

Does that seem likely? Or would it be more likely that all members of council were copied on the questions and the answers? How do we even know if staff managed to capture all of the questions asked?

On October 27 of next year, the municipal election will be held. How can a voter determine if they support a given councillor if they don’t know their position on aspects of the budget?

Let’s imagine that Councillor ‘A’ asks if it would be possible to shut down the library and use the library budget funds to have a giant statue of an apple erected at the entrance to the Municipality of Meaford?

Yes, that is an extremely unlikely question, but budget meetings can often spiral into silliness and the unbelievable.

The point is, without councillors debating the budget in public, a voter can’t possibly know if Councillor ‘A’ supports funding for road improvements, while Councillor ‘B’ does not.

In this modern digital age, it is understandable that municipal councillors in any municipality communicate by email. We all do.

In no way am I suggesting that any member of council has anything to hide, or has done anything shady, but without public debate, how can we possibly know?

Perhaps the province needs to address the issue and establish very clear policies relating to municipal councils and the use of electronic communication.

Virtual meetings, are meetings, and no council should be able to ask nearly 100 questions relating to a municipal budget by email.

It isn’t fair to the voter, and it isn’t fair to members of council who are less than a year from campaigning in hopes of receiving our votes for re-election.

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