Sunday, August 22, 2010

More Special than Regular Meetings

I've mentioned before that for some reason, not discussed in council, there were only two regular council meetings this summer - one in July, one the first week in August. This assumes that nothing much happens in the summer, and also gives those who take summer holidays the chance to take those holidays without affecting their attendance record.

But this August we will have not one, but two special meetings, one tomorrow, the other the following Monday. You probably won't be aware of these; they weren't mentioned on the city page in yesterday's newspaper, even though the next meetings in September were. And that's my big problem with these so-called special meetings - they are very poorly publicized (notice on the city web page and on a bulletin board on the second floor of City Hall allows us to meet legal requirements, but not the ethical requirements of openness). They also aren't emergencies - often they're set to have the third vote on a issue that didn't receive unanimous approval for a third vote in a single meeting, often caused by me exercising my rights as a councillor for the opportunity for sober second thought before finally making a decision. Can these decisions wait until the next regular meeting, and be included in the agenda then? Of course, but this way, members of council are inconvenienced, and it looks like it's my fault for holding out for democracy.

This week's special meeting is to have third vote on changing the time of regular council meetings, from 7 p.m. to 5 p.m. I disagree with this move for a few reasons. My main one is that this makes meetings even less visible to the public. At 5 p.m. most people are leaving work, heading home, starting supper preparations. It's not usually a good time for sitting down and watching a council meeting on television, and you'd be surprised at the number of people who make a point of watching our goings-on regularly. And while we don't have a lot of members of the public who attend our meetings in person, this will make it more difficult for those who do. I know that some members of council would be quite happy not to give the public the opportunity to voice their opinions in the council chambers during public forum - this will make an already restrictive process even more so.

The change will also make it more difficult for members of council, both now and in the future, to attend meetings without affecting their other, full-time job. Being on council is supposed to be a part-time job, reflected by the fact that it doesn't pay a full-time salary. Moving the meetings means that those whose jobs have regular-type hours needn't bother to apply - you will have to take time off work to attend meetings. And not just every two weeks - the Committee of the Whole, in camera meeting, which currently is held a couple of hours before council, will be moved to the other week, before Executive Committee meetings, that have always started at 5 p.m. And there's the additional time required to clean up and put on a suit, as "business attire" is required for council meetings. Not a problem if you're in an office job, more of a problem if your job isn't one that requires a suit. Taking this extra time might not be a problem if you're in a job with flexible hours, or if you're the boss, or if you're retired, but most people don't have that sort of freedom to leave the job a few hours early, every week.

So, what's the impetus behind this move? Well, some members of council find that going so late into the evening (meetings usually end around 8:30 p.m.) is tiring, so they would like to go home earlier. Apparently they missed the part of the job description that says that being on council isn't intended to be a full-time, and certainly not an overtime, commitment, and trying to live up to that expectation could prove to be tiring. Nobody is forced to be at City Hall at 7 a.m. every day, and nobody would have a problem with committee meetings set later in the day, particularly on council meeting days or the day after.

But it's way easier, I suppose, to set meeting times to fit one's personal preferences than respect the public's opportunity to watch and participate in those meetings. The only possible benefit to the earlier meeting time is that it should remove the need to provide meals, not only to council members, but also to staff who attend these meetings, at the tax payers' expense. But that's a small price to pay for making our decision-making processes less visible to those who have to pay for those decisions.

Next week's special meeting is to see the 2009 financial statements for the city. These have to be submitted to the province by the end of August. A more logical approach would have been to include these in an earlier, regular meeting, with sufficient time for council to review before forwarding them to the province. In fact, I'll be interested to find out why these are being reviewed so late in the year, and at a special meeting, to boot. It's not as if this is a new or sudden expectation of the province.

So why two special meetings, and not just one? Who knows. We're just told when, and what's on the agenda. And too bad if you planned your holidays based on the announced schedule of meetings.

I often think how much easier it would be if I could just accept the various actions that are proposed to council at face value - if I could believe, for example, that we were moving council meetings earlier to make it easier for people to attend meetings, which was the reason put forward to the press. But even the slightest consideration of the change shows far more negatives than positives, and it's part of my genetic make-up, I'm afraid, to point these inconsistencies out. And while my pointing things out rarely changes the votes or the minds of others at the council table, at least I'm doing my job in making sure that other points of view are put on the table for discussion - a basic tenet of the democratic ideals that should be driving everyone on council.

"All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility." - John Stuart Mill

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