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

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