There was a stunning display of unity amongst our seven members of council on Wednesday, as they voted on blocks of resolutions without discussion or debate.
Along with the new procedural bylaw adopted by council at their inaugural meeting on December 6th comes a new method of conducting council meetings.
The changes in how our council meetings are conducted are designed to make meetings more efficient, and to move along more quickly. This is accomplished by moving to what is called a “consent agenda.”
A consent agenda allows blocks of items to be grouped together and voted upon in one fell swoop provided that nobody around the table feels the need to discuss the details of any of the items.
The previous format could at times be cumbersome as each report received by council, each approval of minutes from previous meetings were dealt with separately with a separate resolution read out in council, and a separate vote cast. Time consuming to be sure, and often unnecessary.
“In this format, the matters that do not need to be discussed or are in the less important and less urgent categories are moved to a consent agenda. This includes information items, procedural items, approval of minutes, previously approved decisions, routine matters, correspondence requiring no action, and information reports,” reads the explanation on the OMAFRA website which goes on to caution that “A consent agenda is not to be used to drive decisions through without proper discussion and debate. It contains items that are for information purposes only. It helps streamline meetings, as it allows more time to focus on the topics of higher priority.”
The consent agenda model can be an effective tool for conducting meetings without getting bogged down unnecessarily if it is used properly. The danger however is that council can easily find itself becoming a rubber-stamp entity which shuns discussion and debate.
If we accept the fact that a consent agenda can be a good thing, then we must then ensure that it is used properly.
After witnessing the proceedings at the Wednesday council meeting, I'm not so sure that the consent agenda format was utilized in the way it is intended.
If we look at the OMAFRA definition, they say that the consent agenda is to be used to group together less important, and less urgent items that do not require discussion.
That makes a lot of sense. Why go through the motions of reading separate resolutions for things like adoption of the minutes from previous meetings, or receiving reports from staff when you can lump them together and vote on them as a block?
That isn't what happened at the Meaford council meeting on Wednesday though.
Here are some of the items that were included in a consent agenda that our councillors voted on without discussion or debate:
Extension of the contract for our Animal Control Officer
Extension of the tourism contract with the Chamber of Commerce until March 31 at a cost of $28,750
Financial Management policies including the adoption of a debt management policy, and a reserve fund policy
Expense allowances for councillors
Those don't seem like issues that lack importance. Those don't seem like items that should not be discussed.
It is astounding that with seven individual minds around the council table that everyone was on the same page with the details of all of those items, and therefore felt comfortable voting on those items and more without any discussion.
Did nobody want to talk about the financial management policy?
In Treasurer David Kennedy's report to council included in the agenda he states “The Municipality of Meaford does not currently have formal financial policies. The Debt Management and General Reserve and Reserve Fund policies proposed in this report complement each other and will assist in decision making by providing clear and agreed-upon parameters. They will form part of the Financial Plan for the Municipality which will guide us to financial stability and establish funding for a sustainable capital program.”
That is great stuff. Kennedy is a very capable member of our senior management staff, and one of the things he is best at is answering questions, and providing explanations about things that most of us find to be either boring or confusing.
Did none of our councillors want to explore this a little bit? Ask a few questions if only for the benefit of the public to explain what was being adopted and why?
Kennedy's report had a few interesting items that were worthy of discussion.
“By paying off our accumulated deficit in fiscal 2010, our reserve balances are now insufficient to finance these needs, and with no guarantee of future government funding programs, current funding through increased tax rates is not a viable option,” said Kennedy in his report.
Any councillors want to ask just how bad the reserve balances are? Anyone curious to know how much money would need to be pumped back into reserves in order to make them sufficient to finance our needs?
Anyone want to give Kennedy a pat on the back for putting together and implementing formal financial policies that we were previously lacking?
It seems unfathomable that on that one agenda item alone, seven individuals didn't have a single question or comment.
The consent agenda format doesn't strip our councillors of the right to ask questions, or initiate debate. In order to do so though, under the model used on Wednesday night, a councillor needs to resist the temptation to bow to peer pressure and stay safe.
Prior to voting on a block of items the Mayor asks members of council if any of the items need to be pulled out of the block for separate discussion. One by one he asks each member of council if they feel the need to pull one or more items to consider and vote on separately.
There is a peer pressure factor here, and as much as we all like to deny that we ever succumb to peer pressure, the fact is that we do. And in this type of scenario, if you are the sixth person the Mayor asks, and the previous five councillors have all said that they are comfortable with the items in the block and have no need to pull anything for discussion, do you want to be the one to delay the efficient meeting by requesting that an item or two for discussion and debate?
Well you should, because that is why we elected you – to represent us.
To our councillors I would ask- do you think that any of the people that voted for you, any of the people that you have been charged with the task of representing would have had any questions about any of the items included in a block that you voted on without so much as an explanation of why it was a good thing to vote in favour?
One member of council did request an item be pulled aside for separate discussion, and what transpired was interesting.
The Mayor asked each member of council individually if they had any need to separate an item for discussion, and the first five declined. Then the Mayor asked Deputy Mayor Harley Greenfield, who responded that in fact, he would like the 2011 fees for services item to be pulled aside because he had questions about the rates proposed for Meaford Hall.
This drew chuckles from around the council chamber. Greenfield broke the rubber stamp chain and the room laughed.
That is peer pressure. That sends a message to other members of council that they risk a gentle teasing (or worse) if they choose to break from the group and request some healthy discussion.
What transpired after Greenfield made his request though was even more interesting.
Greenfield asked some questions, received clarification from staff, and then he felt comfortable with what was in front of him. So time to vote on the item since nobody else had any questions right?
Since Greenfield had some questions for which he received answers, suddenly Councillor Deborah Young had a question about campsites. Then Councillor Mike Poetker asked for clarification about why there is a pump out charge at the harbour and not at Memorial Park. In essence Poetker was asking if the municipality was missing out on an opportunity for some additional revenue at Memorial Park.
So the members of council did have questions.
But why, when asked if they wanted any items pulled for separate discussion, did they decline?
As these additional questions were being asked, the Mayor turned to Greenfield and joked “See what you've started?”
It was a friendly comment, made with humour, but it drives home the risk associated with the consent agenda format. If our councillors aren't willing to risk a jab or two, then we could easily see our council become a rubber stamp committee.
I am hoping that we can chalk up the lack of discussion and debate Wednesday night to first night jitters. I am hopeful that at future meetings our members of council won't feel so comfortable voting on blocks of five or ten items without so much as a discussion.
We can help out our members of council though. Remember, they have been elected by us, to represent us, so we too have a duty to let them know what our concerns are.
The agenda for council meetings are posted on the municipal website the Friday before the meeting date.
Our councillors clearly need our help, and we should be there for them.
Review the agenda prior to meetings, and then send a friendly email, or make a phone call to your members of council and let them know what questions and concerns you have with items on the agenda, and ask them to bring those questions to council.
Adoption of a consent agenda format for our council meetings should not be seen as a negative. It should not be seen as something that will further reduce the effectiveness of our members of council.
The implementation of the consent agenda model should be seen as an opportunity to communicate our concerns to our elected representatives so that they can bring those concerns to the council table.
And hey, if the councillors won't ask questions, at least you can show up and ask them yourself during the public question period.