Sunday, October 7, 2012

Taking the Dys Out of Dysfunction

One of the media focuses of the past few weeks has been the dysfunctionality of council.  The interest seems to have started when I was the subject of a personal attack at a council meeting, and that became the focus of the local newspaper's coverage of that council meeting.  I blogged about it, then the reporter who wrote the first article wrote a column about my blog, which got him a couple of angry phone calls, one from a current councillor, one from a former councillor, suggesting that he didn't have the complete picture.  So he then wrote an article based on input from a variety of sources, which talked about how differing viewpoints on council are not welcomed, and the responses from other members of council are often disrespectful.

That certainly would be my experience over the last two terms of council.  The disrespectful treatment has ranged from being criticized during a council meeting for the way that I choose to vote, to audible sighs from some council members when a recorded vote is asked for, to eye-rolling when some council members are speaking.  All of these actions reflect a lack of respect for other council members, and for the processes that we are supposed to follow.  Unfortunately, the only behaviour that I can control is my own, and as long as the majority of other members of council go along with this sort of behaviour, things won't change.

But I do have some ideas on how council, as a group, could try to do better.

To start with, we could all learn how a council meeting is supposed to run.  When I was first elected, SUMA offered a one day course for all newly elected members of council, which included information about how a council meeting is supposed to operate, covering such things as how to chair a council meeting, and the purposes of having discussions in camera.  I don't know that any of the newer members of council have been offered, or have been able to take advantage of, such a learning opportunity, but I think that with the next council, a refresher course for all of us should be arranged.  That way people might understand that whoever is chairing a meeting shouldn't participate in the discussion while chairing, and how to hand over the chair to someone else so that you can speak, for example.

I think that understanding when an issue should be kept in camera, out of the public eye, would help considerably.  The Cities Act says that the only matters that should be discussed privately are those involving land, legal issues, and labour, but this council is quite comfortable with putting all sorts of matters onto the in camera agenda, and unless one successfully gets the rest of council to move the matter to the public agenda, there it will remain, meaning that not only does is the public unable to watch the discussion, but members of council are not allowed to speak about it publicly afterwards.

I would also hope that if all members of council were more aware of the rules of the process, then they would be more willing to speak up when the rules are breached, and bring things back on track.  Council really has to police itself on many of these matters, and we have not been very good at doing so.

I think that we also need to remember that, even though we might not agree with someone else's viewpoint, every councillor should be listened to respectfully.  Each of us, of course, represents a much larger constituency, and disrespecting a councillor is, in essence, disrespecting the people who elected that councillor.  To me, that is the basis of our democratic system - listening to and discussing a range of viewpoints and ideas in order to come up with the best possible solution.

Interestingly, whenever I am subject to a public attack at a meeting, I get many supportive phone calls and emails afterwards.  Some of these will even be along the lines of "I don't always agree with how you vote, but I appreciate all the work that you're doing", illustrating that they understand that disagreement doesn't have to result in rudeness.  I also hear from people who say, quite bluntly, that they would never consider running for public office, because they have no interest in being treated rudely simply for voicing an opinion.  To my mind, that is the saddest outcome of all - that good people might be discouraged from even trying to make a difference, because of the way that they see council operating.  That isn't the sort of legacy that anyone on council wants to leave - hopefully, next time we'll actually figure out a way of doing it better.

"Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people." - Barbara Bush

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