County Council will have another look at a proposed procedural bylaw later this month.
Municipal staff presented a report to council during a Special Committee Meeting Wednesday, outlining the findings from a comprehensive study of the current procedural bylaw. The clerk’s office undertook this review in tandem with Amberley Gavel.
The procedural bylaw dictates the structure of council meetings-from place to proceedings. Playing an integral role in municipal governance, the overview sought to improve four main tenets of the local democratic process. These include transparency, aligning with legislation, efficiency and effectiveness of meetings and inclusion/accessibility. From these four categories, several questions arose. According to the report, these are:
- Improving transparency – How can the Bylaw support the municipality in being more clear, consistent and open in the conduct and communication of meetings?
- Aligning with legislation – Does the Bylaw meet relevant legislative requirements? How can the By-Law guide the municipality in a changing legislative context?
- Meeting Efficiency and Effectiveness – How can the Bylaw ensure that meetings are conducted in an efficient way that respects the contributions of official participants, the public and staff?
- Inclusion and Accessibility – How can the Bylaw promote inclusion and accessibility in municipal meetings, rules, and documents?
While some of the changes suggested in the report are administrative in nature, and arguably beneficial (for example, the recommendation to speak in “plain language”), there remains a contested bulk of changes with regards to how the public and council are permitted to interact during council meetings that has left some residents riled.
In the past, any unlimited number of residents have been allowed to speak to council for ten minutes each on topics of importance. These deputations-as they’re called-have now hit the chopping block, with staff recommending a threshold of three deputations per meetings. As it stands, there is no cap on how many
“Deputations are important in the decision-making process as they allow people to officially voice their views about a particular matter. Staff are recommending a limit of 3 deputations per meeting, with an option to call a special meeting if more than 3 deputations have registered regarding one topic, or significant interest is generated regarding a particular topic,” wrote Catalina Blumenberg, Clerk.
While the report concedes the Municipal Act “does not include specific requirements for public deputations” it suggests that limiting the number of deputations will enable better management of the meetings.
According to data collected by staff, limiting the number of deputations in both 2020 and 2021 would only have affected those wishing to speak at two Committee of the Whole Meetings and five Regular Council Meetings.
“The data exemplifies that if the three deputation limit was currently in effect for 2020 and 2021, it would have impacted a total of two regular Committee of the Whole Meetings, and a total of Regular Meetings of Council”.
Several members of the public voiced concern about the changes to the procedural bylaw, with particular attention paid to the limit on deputations.
Though the new bylaw has a provision to allow for the proposed limit of three deputations to be waived should the majority of council vote to do so, according to local resident Paula Peel, this provision lacks transparency.
“Council can hardly decide to waive the three deputation limit if there only three deputations,” said Peel. “There will never be more at a regular meeting, so council would have no way of knowing if there were more requests for deputation.”
Peel clarified the three deputation rule could only be waived during a special council meeting, the instigation of which being determined by staff.
“A procedural bylaw that prohibits the public from even addressing council and Committee of the Whole about matters of concern borders on suppression of free speech,” Peel expressed.
Amy Bodman also spoke to council, imploring them to ask several critical questions before approving the draft procedural bylaw. These include:
Is the amendment to this bylaw/policy essential, or will it have a substantial benefit to the municipality?
Is the amendment changing the intent of the existing bylaw/policy?
Could anticipated, upcoming amendments be completed at the same time?
Is the amendment written in a manner that will likely remain relevant five years from now?
As with Peel, Bodman questioned the need to limit deputations and argued there is no substantial benefit to doing so.
“I’m here to argue there is no substantial benefit to putting a limit on deputations, nor has a limit been demonstrated to be essential,” stated Bodman.
She noted that, over the last two years, very few meetings have had over three deputations.
“Have Your Say implied the limit has been recommended for efficiency, the assumption being fewer deputations means fewer items on the agenda,” Bodman said. “Limiting deputations will make little difference to the length of meetings.”
Citing the need for fair and unbiased consideration of all deputations to uphold a just government, Bodman fears important issues may otherwise be overlooked.
“Having no limit may mean deputations are given that council feels are irrelevant or grand standing, but that is the price of democracy,” she asserted.
Though Bodman pointed out there are myriad channels through which the public can address council, she also noted it is only through deputations that people can speak to all members of council directly.
Fred Dean and Nigel Bellchamber of Amberley Gavel also spoke to council, providing insight on the proposed changes to the procedural by-law.
“One of the things about local government is that meetings should be predictable. And topics should be predictable…That’s a fundamental concept with regards to transparency in decision making. Predictable meetings have to be part of your procedural bylaw,” said Dean.
Councillor Mike Harper asked Dean to clarify his position on limiting deputations for those who are opposed.
“Say we shoot for a three hour meeting, right now we’re allocating a third of that time to public comment,” stated Harper. “For me, that’s a good allocation of time that reflects the objective of that part of the council meeting. Perhaps you have a response to some of the residents who see it differently than I do.”
Dean responded that, as far as municipalities go, he considers the County to be quite open to public comment.
“You should be getting input from your community and the issue is what level of input is appropriate. I think Bellchamber’s slide about all the different ways the public can participate in your process is dramatic. That’s the highest level I’ve ever seen in public input,” iterated Dean. “In my opinion, as a council, you’re being very open to the public. That’s good but it does impose upon the time we allow for meetings.”
Councillor Bill Roberts inquired as to whether, in the experience of Bellchamber and Dean, the municipality was striking the correct balance with regards to allowing deputations.
“Over time, representative democracy tends to bias toward the powerful, the affluent, the loudest,” admitted Roberts. “That’s the ailment of this type of democracy. The vaccine for that ailment is having diverse public input…have we, in your professional opinion, struck the right balance here?”
While Bellchamber noted that council has “a lot on their plate” he furthermore did not believe the types of people Roberts was afraid of excluding from making deputations would be liable to make deputations anyway.
“The people who show up as delegations (deputations) are ones that are comfortable speaking in front of council, they tend to be better educated, more articulate, have more experience and practice,” commented Bellchamber. “I think your online consultation, the ability for people to send you an email without having to see you face to face and be embarrassed by their inability to deal with some of the big words, that probably is more democratization of the consultation process than formal deputations that can be quite daunting for some people.”
Speaking to council, the clerk reiterated the limit was intended as a tool to determine which topics deserved more consideration and thought by way of a Special Meeting or which deputations could become comments from the audience, which have a three minute time limit as opposed to the ten minute time limit allotted to deputations.
“The limit of three provides us a tool to redirect the person to provide a comment to the audience. When there’s more than three and it’s a jam-packed agenda, in collaboration with the CAO and mayor …it’s ok to say this matter needs to be a Special Meeting because it deserves sole attention,” she explained.
Ultimately, council voted to remove the proposed limit of three deputations from the draft procedural bylaw. And, after much debate, council passed a motion that staff defer the draft procedural bylaw, including the changes made during the Special Meeting, to the February 8th meeting.