Monday, February 26, 2024

What’s Wrong With Meaford’s Council? It Depends on Your Perspective

By Stephen Vance, Editor

Perspectives are important. It is always fascinating to read one person’s take on a situation and then compare it to your own. Sometimes you learn something new, sometimes you don’t, and at other times you might simply scratch your head, shrug your shoulders, and move on.

In a column this week, our friends at the Express have suggested that there is something not quite right with Meaford’s council.

On that I could not agree more.

Where our perspectives differ though is with regard to the source of the problems.

In his column, Express reporter Chris Fell suggests that the departure of two senior managers from the municipal office is cause for concern, and he further suggests that if a third senior manager was to submit their resignation it would be a clear sign that senior management has lost confidence in the current council.

That would seem to be a bit of a leap.

We are talking about a rural municipal administration staffed by every-day professionals who like the rest of us, ply their trade to earn a paycheque. It would be surprising if any member of our municipal senior management would leave their job simply because they have lost confidence in council.

Staff doesn’t report to council, only the CAO reports to council. A CAO might very well part company with a municipality if they have lost confidence in council, but a Human Resources Manager, or any other manager, not likely. Most of us have at one time or another had a boss that we lacked confidence in, but the mortgage still needs to be paid, and the kids still need winter boots, so most of us grit our teeth and do our jobs the best we can.

As for the reasons for the perceived problems with council, which Mr. Fell says exist because our “councillors seem upset with each other,” he suggests that there are two causes – The newcomers to council did not take the councillor training, and that our councillors each have their own agenda, most of which are not in the best interests of the municipality.

That is quite a bold statement.

What councillor training has to do with anything is a bit of a mystery. Sure some probably took the trip out of town to take the course, but the information included in the councillor training sessions is also available online to be read at home or at the office. Training in our digital age does not always mean having to sit in a classroom.

One member of council who from time to time acts as mother hen to the rest of council, and takes the opportunity every now and then to scold the new members of council for one reason or another has in the past suggested that not all of the new members have taken the official councillor training, and because of that, they simply cannot understand the role of a municipal councillor as well as other councillors who spent a few hours in a room reading slides on a screen.

Whether they attended the training session or not, it would seem fairly irrelevant to the dynamics of seven adults sitting around a wooden horseshoe.

As for agendas. Doesn’t everyone have an agenda?

An agenda is not necessarily a bad thing. Pushing for financial responsibility is an agenda, but I don’t think many people would suggest it is a bad one. Arguing against a waste incinerator out of concern for public safety could be viewed as an agenda, but is that a bad thing?

If a candidate in a municipal election didn’t express some sort of agenda, they likely wouldn’t be elected.

The problem with our current council from my perspective is that until recently they have been clamped under the thumb of a controlling CAO who made every attempt to limit public input as well as debate amongst councillors.

You may recall that prior to the inauguration of this council a new procedural bylaw was put forward which eliminated public question period at council meetings. The rationale put forward by the CAO at the time was that residents have several means at their disposal for expressing their views or asking questions of councillors. What with telephones, and email, there was no need to clutter up council meetings with questions from the lowly public.

Fortunately, after some debate amongst members of the new council, public question period was added back into the procedural bylaw, and residents retained their ability to attend a council meeting and ask questions. They typically don’t get any answers, but that is fodder for another column.

What did remain in the new procedures for council meetings though, was a “consent agenda” which was touted as a means to make council meetings more efficient and effective by eliminating unnecessary discussion and debate amongst councillors. Why discuss each issue coming before council separately when they could simply vote on 10 items as a single unit with no discussion at all?

The problem with our council has been that for the first eight or nine months of their term, there was practically no discussion, no debate, our council seemed quite happy to use the consent agenda as suggested by the CAO.

In recent months however, members of council have indeed been engaging in healthy debate. Gone are the rubber-stamp days; our councillors have found their feet and now ensure that most of the items on the consent agenda are pulled for separate discussion prior to casting their vote.

The result has been a visible division in ideology amongst our members of council, and if that means that our councillors “seem upset with each other,” then so be it. If our members of council are debating the issues, and now feel comfortable enough to express their views even if those views are contrary to their fellow councillors, then our system is working the way it should.

Chalk one up for democracy, a system whose very essence is based on constructive, healthy debate.

So what is the problem with our council? The problem is that a couple members of our council would still like to eliminate public input and healthy debate, and they view the public with contempt, and a councillor with opinions contrary to their own as having an agenda that is not in the best interest of the municipality.

Clearly the precious councillor training received by those councillors didn’t mention anything about democracy.


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