Saturday, December 4, 2021

Is There an Ideal Time of Day For Council Meetings?

In recent weeks, the topic of the time of day when council meetings are held has been raised by a handful of residents. Some have raised the topic in email messages, while others have bumped into me on the street and have suggested that the timing of council meetings does not allow everyone to attend.

My simple answer is typically that there is no perfect time for a council meeting, there is no time that suits everyone, though I know that some disagree. So I figured it was time to offer my own thoughts on the scheduling of council meetings.

It has been suggested to me that the timing of council meetings is designed to limit the number of people that can attend, or that there is some conspiracy to keep residents away from council meetings. To that I say, poppycock.

Over the years the time of council meetings has shifted around from time to time. Thirteen years ago council meetings were commonly held at 7 p.m., convenient for many I suspect, but those meetings also had a tendency to grind on, late into the evening, with 11 p.m. adjournments (or later) a common result.

In recent years, council meetings have been scheduled for 3 p.m., with public planning meetings often held at 5 p.m. The afternoon meetings didn’t seem to impact the number of residents sitting in the council chamber galleries (most often none, but a full house can be expected for any major issue). Since the onset of the pandemic, first there was a shift to virtual meetings, and now meetings are being held at Meaford Hall. A 1 p.m. start time has been the norm, and again, as someone who has attended virtually every council meeting for the past 13 years, attendance by residents has been similar to any previous council meeting start times.

The issue has seemingly become a hot topic this week due to a public planning meeting scheduled for 3 p.m. on Tuesday of this week.

The most common suggestion I hear when the topic of council meeting timing is raised is that the afternoon meetings prevent working people from attending and engaging in the process. But is there such a thing as regular working hours anymore? Workers today have a range of schedules and shifts, and though an evening meeting might be convenient for some, others might work in the evening, and the same can be said for any time of day or night. So what time suits absolutely everyone?

Another consideration is municipal staff. Holding meetings during the day means that staff is there during their regular working hours, but for evening meetings, those members of staff are working overtime, and we all know what the most vocal think about paying municipal workers their regular salaries, let alone factoring in overtime.

The suggestion that meeting times are designed to limit the participation of the majority flies in the face of the real fact that there has never been a time when residents have so many options for engaging in the process. If you are concerned about the SkyDev development proposal you don’t have to attend the actual public meeting, you can submit your comments by email, or even by letter. If your concern is simply attending the meeting to take in information, all council meetings are now livestreamed and the meetings are archived for viewing at any time desired.

To those that insist that there is some plan to block public participation, as someone who lives and breathes municipal governance, in all the decades I have been in the municipal governance world I have never before seen the transparency and opportunities for participation in the municipal governing process that we have today.

Some have argued with me about that assertion, however I would note that those folks are also rarely if ever seen in the council chamber. It was pointed out to me recently that I have more years in Meaford’s council chamber than all but one of our current members of council, and if actual experience still counts for anything these days, I can tell you that it matters not the time of day – if people want to attend a council meeting, they find a way.

It is perhaps worth noting that the majority of the people that I hear from about council, those that are the most vocal and who beat the drums with the greatest fury, are also mostly folks that I have never seen in the council chamber at all, whether it be for a 1 p.m. meeting, a 5 p.m. meeting, or a 7 p.m. meeting. Far too many I find take their guidance on municipal issues from folks that don’t even have an understanding of how a municipal council works, from those who don’t attend council meetings but insist that there are efforts to impair the ability of the public to participate.

If you believe that the scheduling of council meetings is being tailored to exclude the public, you are believing a lie, you are believing nonsense. I am sorry to have to put it that way, but in this era of misinformation and conspiracies substituting fact, there is no choice but to be blunt these days.

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