Monday, May 24, 2010

A Couple of Forthcoming Motions

One of the procedural rules of council is what is called "notice of motion". Members of council can't just put forward a motion on the spur of the moment. Instead, the process is to notify council that at the next meeting, you intend to introduce a motion about a specific topic. Then, at that next meeting, hopefully with a seconder prepared to help you get it on the floor for discussion, you present the actual motion.

Once you have made the notice, you are then required to either make the motion, or withdraw it. In the last term of council, one member made a notice of motion, which then turned out to be more complicated than he thought it would be (renaming city facilities may offend those who were involved in the initial naming, I guess), but instead of withdrawing his notice, he chose instead to rise in each subsequent meeting to postpone introducing the motion. I suppose, with the end of the last council term, his notice just died, but it indicates the importance of doing your homework, and knowing procedure, before giving notice.

Anyway, at tomorrow's meeting (delayed one day because of Victoria Day) a couple of members of council will be introducing motions for which they gave notice at the last meeting.

One notice had to do with a proposal to stop all street oiling by 2012. For those of you who live in newer parts of town, you may not be aware of this practice, but for those of us who live in areas where not all streets are paved, this is an ongoing, if environmentally questionable practice, intended to help reduce the dust that flies about in the summer. Until a few years ago, the avenue that runs past our house was oiled every year, which was a pain on oiling day, as we had to keep our animals out of the oil, and Andrea had to detour in her walk home from work, to avoid getting oil on her shoes. Fortunately, the avenue was subject to the modified paving program, so there's no more oiling, although the modified paving has proven not to last, and those avenues and streets where this was done are now starting to fall apart.

The cost of oiling is included on an affected residential tax bill, as a local improvement. Residents on a street or avenue can petition against oiling, but are then left with the dust. The current street paving program requires that residents who want to have their street paved must get a petition signed by the majority of residents - not always easy to do, since it means an increase in the tax bill for all residents.

No question, oiling is not the thing to do environmentally. But I'm not sure if some councillors aren't rushing to show how environmentally friendly they are without considering what alternatives we should be offering. Are we now going to embark on a program to pave all city streets? If so, we should be aware of what the costs are, and figure out how those costs are going to be covered. As well, we need to do the job right - modified paving may be cheaper to start with, but the ongoing maintenance requirements quickly push the long-term costs considerably higher.

I'll be interested to see if the councillor who made the notice of motion has considered all of the implications in carrying out such a motion.

Another notice of motion was made by the mayor. His motion is to have council meetings start at 5 p.m., year round, rather than the current practice of starting at 7 (except for summer months). Rather than having Committee of the Whole meetings immediately before the Council Meeting (that's our in camera session that usually starts at 4 p.m.), these meetings would instead be held before Executive Committee meetings (which usually start at 5 p.m.) on alternate weeks.

I'm interested in hearing what the rationale will be for this change. In my opinion, having council meetings start at 5 p.m. is another step in making our decision-making processes harder for the public to access. I have to wonder if Shaw Cable will be able to get its volunteers out to broadcast meetings that start exactly when most people's work days are ending. It also makes it less convenient for council members who hold a nine-to-five job to get there for start time. That may not affect many current councillors, but these changes may make being on council less convenient for those thinking of letting their name stand in the future.

About the only benefit that I can think could come from this might be that tax-payers would no longer be funding an evening meal for most members of council (I no longer participate in this meal, since I heard clearly from city residents that they didn't think that this practice was right). But that would be a small benefit, compared to the cost of making council deliberations harder for people to follow.

Some members of the current council talk endlessly about being open and accountable, but their actions - passing items discussed at Executive in blocks, rather than discussing them individually at the actual council meeting, rushing through budget discussions in a single day, and even refusing to open up critical sections of the budget or provide information about operating costs of city-funded facilities - instead say that they don't believe that council or its decisions should be open to the average citizen, the people who are actually paying the bills. Too often, it seems that the discussions about various aspects of running the city are happening behind closed doors, with the final council vote a mere formality.

I know that there are members of council who think that they know what is best for the city, without asking for outside opinions. I know that there are those who think that discussing things in private, and figuring out how to get the results that will benefit them and their supporters, is the way that the world works. But I still believe that if we are doing the right thing, we shouldn't be trying to hide our processes, but instead we should be trying to be as open and forthright as possible. We all need to recognize that, although we have been elected, that election didn't automatically confer wisdom or infallibility. And sadly, the record of some of our actions really underscores our need to consult more widely and discuss more fully.

Just once, wouldn't it be nice if we thought of what might make things easier for the tax-payer, rather than figuring out how to keep our actions less visible.

"The smaller the mind, the greater the conceit." - Aesop

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Learning the Rules of the Game

In my previous term on council, I suggested that council could use some outside advice on how it operated - people seemed to not understand how the council process worked, or what their role, as members of council, should be when it came to decision-making. Most of my then colleagues didn't see the need for such assistance, with one council member suggesting that it was too far along in the term for such advice to be of any benefit.

And now, with this newer council, I'm seeing many of the same problems. Members of council don't appear to be familiar with such basic actions as making motions, or how to allow fellow councillors to make their motions without being interrupted, or how to properly chair a meeting, or when it's appropriate to abstain from voting, or what the various parts of the agenda are to be used for. And it's not that the information isn't out there - it's just that, with the current council and administration, each councillor needs to do their own homework.

This was emphasized to me after the last council meeting, when one of my favourite constituents called me, to ask why things seemed so disorganized, and why the council member who was chairing part of the meeting was allowed to question the councillor who was trying to make a motion, rather than allowing her to finish. Part of it might be bad manners, part of it might be confusion over the responsibility of the meeting chair - the person in that position is merely the traffic coordinator, not the boss, and as chair, is not supposed to participate in discussion at all.

The motion in question was to have council do something that is already their responsibility - have committee appointments come to council, rather than decided solely by the mayor, without any review by council as a whole. Committees are supposed to be appointed by council; this council chose to give away that responsibility earlier this term, when they allowed the mayor to make all appointments without questioning either the process or the results. As a council, we have the authority - we just chose to give it away. As with most authority, once you've given it away, it's hard to get back. But making a motion to get something that we already have isn't the way to correct the situation.

At that same meeting I used my time during councillors' forum to ask where in the Police Act legislation it said that the police budget was to be kept confidential, and couldn't be shared with the public. I raised the question, because when I asked during the budget vote why we weren't provided with the complete police budget, I was told that it wasn't allowed under legislation. I've been told things that aren't true frequently by both adminstration and other members of council, so I did some searching through the legislation myself, and couldn't find anything. And because the budget is no longer on the agenda, I couldn't ask the question during the main part of the meeting. But councillors' forum is not intended to be a mere recital of social engagements that one has attended on behalf of the city, it is supposed to be for councillors to raise concerns and ideas that are outside the regular agenda, but still worthy of raising. I'm surprised that a veteran councillor first resorted to name calling (suggesting that I'm a whiner for asking a question about information that has been improperly withheld), then told me that I was misusing councillors' forum. Okay, I'm not that surprised, because it seems that most councillors are just willing to go along with the crowd, and not make waves or ask questions, because then they might be punished by being removed from a committee that is dear to them.

Part of the problem is that people come on to council with only a vague idea of how things work. Most have never attended a meeting, or reviewed a budget. Most don't know (and neither does the general public, I'd bet), that we don't follow Robert's Rules of Order, but a different system- that's why the chair gets a vote every time, not just when there's a tie. Most rely on other members of council for guidance - this is fine, up to a point, but we have to remember that other members may not know any more than you do, or may have their own agendas. I remember one member of a previous council who said that you were supposed to vote the way the mayor did, simply because he was the mayor. I can only imagine where he got that idea.

When it comes right down to it, council members are not elected to be rubber stamps. We each have a responsibility and obligation to educate ourselves about the job - each member should read The Cities Act at least once, for example - that's the law that we're supposed to follow. And each council member needs to follow their own principles and beliefs, and not vote just because you think that it will make things easier for you down the line. And don't be afraid to ask people who are no longer on council how things were in the past - they can provide useful advice, without the biases that current members of council may have.

It's a tough job, without much training available. But to continue to fumble along, to the point where people watching start to wonder why we look confused, shouldn't be considered our only option.

"Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary." - Robert Louis Stevenson