Wednesday, July 24, 2024

New Meeting Structure Just Isn’t Working

By Stephen Vance, Editor

Back in December I raised some concerns about the proposed revisions to the Procedural Bylaw which outlined how Meaford council meetings would be conducted for the coming term.


My feeling was that overall the document was a very good one that was filled with some positive changes, however my concerns at the time focused on the new 3 o’clock start time for the monthly Committee of the Whole meetings, and the elimination of public question period from the council agenda.


Prior to approving the new Procedural Bylaw our newly elected council debated the issue of public question period, and revised the bylaw to ensure that the public question period would remain. That was an excellent decision that protected the ability of residents to participate in council meetings, and to have their questions asked and answered publicly.


The new timing of the Committee of the Whole meetings though, remained. And now that we have seen the new procedure in place for a few months, it is clear that while it may be effective for council and staff, the new structure for these meetings is confusing at best from a public perspective.


Residents and media alike are never really certain of when they should show up should they wish to attend a meeting, and while the meetings are now completed at a reasonable time in the evening, they are long, drawn out affairs that include a lot of down time when nothing is happening which wastes everyone’s time.


The March 14 Committee of the Whole meeting was a perfect example of the confusion that arises from the current meeting structure.


The agenda posted on the municipal website prior to the meeting stated a start time of 3 pm. Council would be in closed session initially and then at 3:30 would move into a public working session. After the working session there was to be a break for dinner, and then at 7 pm the regular council meeting would take place and would deal with all of the items on the agenda.


Sounds like a pretty decent plan right? Except it didn’t exactly happen that way.


At around 3:15 residents began gathering in the lobby outside of the closed door to the council chamber. Many of those present were dressed in their Scarecrow best, so clearly something of interest was happening at the meeting.


As the lobby filled with more residents, time ticked away until at nearly 4 pm, the door to the council chamber was opened. Now you can’t fault anyone for the closed session taking longer than expected. That is bound to happen from time to time, but this is problem number one with the new meeting structure.


It becomes a guessing game as far as when the public portion of the meeting will begin.


If the closed session runs long, then you have a lobby full of people waiting patiently. If people get used to the closed sessions running long, then they could very well start arriving later and risk the public meeting starting early in which case they could miss part (or all) of the meeting.


Once the public meeting began last Monday, council and staff worked through all of the items on the working session portion of the agenda including the unveiling of the new branding direction for the municipality- which is why all those scarecrows were present.


At the conclusion of the working session, the time was roughly 5 pm. Council was supposed to recess until 7 pm when the regular council meeting – according to the agenda – was set to begin.


With council heading into recess, all of the members of the public left the building. With two hours to kill, myself and the other reporter present also nearly left the building, but then the inexplicable happened.


The Mayor and members of council returned to their seats at the council table and the Mayor suggested that rather than waste two hours, council could instead start working through the agenda items for the regular meeting which according to the publicly posted agenda was not supposed to begin until 7 pm.


And that is just what council did. They worked through the entire agenda, and by the time their catered dinner had arrived, they were done. All that was left on the agenda were a few delegations making presentations to council, and public question period.


So as members of council and staff had their dinner break, the poor folks from Rogers Television who had come all the way from Owen Sound, set about the job of setting up their three cameras, running cables out to their truck, and testing their equipment all so that they could film three 10 minute presentations, and a couple of questions from the public.


It seemed like a lot of work for the Rogers crew in order to film 30 minutes of less than riveting television. I bet they were wishing that the unveiling of the new logo and slogan had been held off until they were filming – that would have given their viewers a chance to share in the hype that had been created earlier in the day, and it would have made sense to have such a major unveiling broadcast on television.


What was worse though, is that some members of the public returned to the council chamber in hopes of being present for some of the items on the agenda for the 7:00 regular meeting, only to find that the meeting had been completed.


Mayor Francis Richardson found himself in the awkward position of being confronted by some of those residents who were clearly not pleased that after they left the earlier portion of the meeting on the understanding that the meeting would resume at 7 pm, they had instead missed everything.


When council resumed the meeting at 7 pm, the Mayor apologized to the public for the confusion and assured everyone that it wouldn’t happen again.


While that particular scenario might not happen again, the fact is that the new meeting structure just isn’t working.


The new procedural bylaw was touted as being a positive change for the public. The CAO stressed that it would improve and increase the public participation in the municipal democratic process, but it has done just the opposite.


There is a simple fix though.


First, move the closed sessions of council to the end of council meetings. Second, set the time for the start the public portion of council meetings, and stick to it.


Then if the meeting is scheduled to start at 3 pm, more often than not the meeting would be completed sometime around 6, and council and staff could have their dinner during the closed session.


This would eliminate the guessing games for the public, and would avoid embarrassing situations as occurred last Monday. It would also certainly be efficient.


On the other hand they could choose to take the massive hockey arena styled countdown clock that is now projected onto the big screen behind the mayor while members of the public are making presentations to council and use it during the closed sessions to ensure that they finish on time.


But then that would just be silly – surely members of council would never stand for being treated like little children who must hurry up and finish speaking before the clock hits zero and the buzzer sounds – that would simply be disrespectful.


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