The one bit of actual business that will take place at the inauguration ceremony for the new Meaford council on Monday December 6th at Meaford Hall will be the adoption of a new procedural bylaw.
If our new council is determined to re-gain the trust and support of the general public, then they might be wise to insist on holding off on passing this bylaw until some debate can be had about some of the details contained within it.
The proposed procedural bylaw which on the whole contains a lot of sound procedures, also includes a couple of puzzling changes not the least of which is the plan to eliminate public question period from the council agenda, and to hold the main council meeting (the committee of the whole) each month at 3 pm instead of the current 7 pm.
Meaford CAO Frank Miele stated in the Meaford Express that these two moves are designed to increase public participation, suggesting that there are other forms of communication available to the public who want to have their say with councillors.
I am confused.
Eliminating public question period, and starting meetings at 3 pm will increase public participation? I can't imagine how that would happen.
Let's begin with the 3 pm start for meetings.
Beginning the committee of the whole meetings at this early hour will exclude those who have full-time day jobs from attending meetings. How does this increase public participation?
And what of the members of council who also have full-time employment? Our members of council are not elected to full-time positions. The job of a Meaford councillor is a part-time job that pays $20,000 per year. While members of council might be able to cut out of work early for one Monday per month in order to attend a council meeting, what if they can't?
If a councillor is faced with a decision of risking their relations at their full-time job by taking time off versus missing a meeting at their part-time job, which would win?
If our councillors were paid a a full-time living wage for the position then, even given that it would make it more difficult for some members of the public to attend meetings, this move might make some sense.
After all, it would be easier on municipal staff as they wouldn't have to give up their evening after a long day at the office, however the fact is we employ a part-time council, and a 3 pm start for meetings throws up a roadblock not just for the public but for members of council, or those who might consider running for council in the future.
All we need to do is to look down the highway to the Bluewater District School Board where constant public dissatisfaction from the public led to discussion of how to improve the connection with the people that pay the bills- the public.
The BWSB decided back in August that one of the ways they could better serve and involve their constituents would be to move from daytime meetings to a 7 pm start.
“These changes will make the board more accessible to parents and other constituents who work during the day,” said board Chair Jennifer Yenssen at the time.
There were other changes that the board made that weren't so wonderful, but the shift to evening meetings from a public relations standpoint was certainly a positive.
So how can it be said that a 3 pm start to our council meetings in Meaford will result in increased participation from the public?
Miele says that the new cameras installed in the council chamber will record meetings and members of the public who can't make it to the meeting can pick up a copy on DVD. Presumably those DVDs would be available at the municipal office during regular working hours. So if you can't make it to the meeting because you had to work, then it might be difficult to pick up the DVD as well.
The other interesting change in the proposed procedural bylaw is the elimination of public question period.
My sense is that this change in particular will not go over very well with the general public.
I understand the goal here. Staff is looking to streamline the meetings, make them more efficient, and to avoid a room full of concerned residents showing up at a meeting to ask questions of council.
The question period we've had on the agenda has never been all that well thought out to begin with. It has always been listed very late on the agenda, and it came after council had already discussed and voted on all of the items on the agenda.
However, it has at least been an opportunity for the average Joe to attend a meeting of council and ask a question of their councillors.
Rather than having a question period, the new procedural bylaw will allow for deputations to appear before council. A maximum of four deputations will be allowed on any given agenda.
Okay fine, members of the public can still address council and ask questions, but here is the kicker.
Deputations will only be on the agenda once per month for the committee of the whole meetings, and in order to appear before council as a deputation you must notify the municipal Clerk no later than noon on the Tuesday before the meeting date. Deputations must then provide a written copy of their presentation by 4 pm on the same Tuesday.
Deputations may also only speak to items that are on the agenda, but if you have to notify the Clerk the Tuesday before the meeting, and the agenda isn't even posted until the Friday, how can the average Joe even know if the issue concerning them will be on the agenda?
And with a limit of four deputations per month, there is no guarantee that the average Joe will even get on the agenda as a deputation.
How does this kind of red tape help to increase public participation? What will happen if the Clerk receives 20 requests to appear as a deputation? How will the four be selected, and what of the concerns of the other 16?
Yes, there are other ways of making your thoughts known to councillors. You can phone them, you can send an email, but what if you don't receive a reply? Believe me that happens. What if you want your particular concern to become part of the public record?
The goal of this change is a noble one. Streamline the meetings, make them more efficient, and ensure that councillors aren't bombarded with a bunch of questions from the public. But surely there is a better way to go about that rather than creating this kind of red tape.
These two changes contained in the procedural bylaw that council is set to adopt at their inauguration on Monday December 6th at 5 pm at Meaford Hall will further distance our council from the electorate.
But it doesn't have to happen.
Contact the seven members of our new council and remind them that the residents voted for them, and ask them to not exclude the public from the process in this way.