Sunday, December 5, 2010

Fewer Meetings, Fatter Agendas

We didn't have an executive meeting last week, even though it was two weeks since the last one. Or a council meeting. No reason was given.

In theory, we're supposed to have council meetings every other week, with an executive meeting the week in between. Our last council meeting was November 22, which means that last week should have been an executive meeting, but there was nothing.

I found this odd, so I checked the 2010 meeting schedule, or at least the latest revision, which we received August 26. While it would be a logical assumption that there should be 26 council meetings a year, one every two weeks, this council will meet only 20 times in 2010. Two meetings in January, March, April, May, June, September, October, and November, but only one meeting in the months of February, July, August and December. I don't recall previous councils skipping meetings with that frequency - the work of running the city doesn't take a holiday, and neither should council. About the only times that I can recall meetings being rescheduled would be if the scheduled meeting was set to fall during either SUMA or FCM, when most of council is away at those meetings, but there was none of this going weeks between meetings for no apparent reason.

A cynic might suggest that someone is arranging meetings to fit with a holiday or other planned absence schedule, so that one could take breaks but still have a perfect attendance record.

So why is this a problem? One reason that it poses a problem is that agendas then become very lengthy. For tomorrow's executive and committee of the whole meetings, we have more than 1,000 pages of material to review. This is material that we received late Thursday, then more documents came by email on Friday. This is a lot of pages to go through, think about, and mark for questions and comments, over a few days. And the matters in the committee of the whole agenda tend to be subjects that haven't been raised before, so we're usually starting from ground zero for those.

I'm not sure how long tomorrow's meeting will last - our last executive and committee of the whole meetings, on November 15th, went from 4 p.m. until almost 8 p.m., which posed a bit of a logistics problem for those of us who had tickets to Ron James at 8 that evening. It can be a real temptation just to let things slide as the evening wears on, and thought processes do get more difficult.

Another reason that it's a problem is that fewer meetings means fewer opportunities for the public to keep track of what's going on. I know that the meeting schedule is posted on the city web-site - it may come as a shock to some of the electronically addicted out there, but not everybody goes on a computer to get their information. And I know that it's also in the paper, but if Saturday's paper is any indication, it can't be counted on, since it indicates that tomorrow's meeting is scheduled for next Monday, where it will run smack into the next council meeting.

We've already become more inaccessable, after moving council meetings to 5 p.m. from 7 p.m., and shifting committee of the whole (our in-camera session) to follow executive committee, rather than the previous practice of having it immediately before the council meeting. Add to that the habit that some members of council have adopted of moving the acceptance of all matters considered at committee of the whole in a block, at a special council meeting that is set immediately after committee of the whole. That's right, the same evening. Remember, these are matters that are usually brand new to council, and they're being passed in a block the same day that they're discussed, so are never put on the agenda that is available to the public before regular council meetings, or openly discussed or voted upon at a regular council meeting. Further adding to the obscurity - council meeting is the only place that a recorded vote can be requested, so for these matters that are passed in a block it gets even harder for members of the public to follow what decisions are being made, and why.

At our last strategic planning session, I proposed that we go back to having council meetings weekly, and getting rid of executive committee altogether, since I don't think that having that committee has improved our performance as a council at all. If we're going to be meeting weekly, why not have the most open meeting that we can? You can imagine the lack of support that my suggestion received.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but if we really mean to be open and accountable, then our actions have to match our words. And, while I'm not afraid of reviewing a reasonable amount of material before a meeting, I think that everybody's work load would become more manageable if we had less to focus on each time, but focused more often.

"Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?" - Charlie McCarthy

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