At last week's council meeting, council voted to remove the public inquiry portion of council meetings. I'm not sure what the impetus was for this - I know that some councillors thought that it was taking up too much time on the council agenda - sometimes as much as half an hour. And some felt that other councillors misused the opportunity, bringing up a lengthy list of micromanaging questions, possibly with the hope of moving these things up on the list of getting things done.
I didn't vote with the majority on this one, and two fellow councillors were also in opposition. I believe that our reasons were similar - public inquiries is a good place to raise questions that have been raised with us, in the interests of educating both our fellow council members and the general public. For instance, a few years back, I had a question that I raised during the public portion of the meeting, about the number of homes in Prince Albert that still had lead water service connections. Not only did this make many people aware of this potential health hazard, it also led to the development of a program to assist people in having these connections replaced, and to guidelines for how to keep your drinking water safe if you do live in one of these homes.
The direction now is that members of council are to direct their inquiries to the city manager, who will then direct them to the appropriate department. However, this doesn't let other councillors know about an issue that may also interest them (unless we choose to bury ourselves in emails cc'd to everybody), and more importantly, it leaves out the public education piece. It also slows the process down - if a question is raised at council, the appropriate department head is made aware of it right away, rather than having it filtered through the extra level of bureaucracy.
If there was an issue with too much time being spent at council meetings on these questions, I can think of a couple of ways we could have reduced the time without removing the entire process. Providing guidelines to councillors about what is appropriate for public inquiries would be one way - specific questions about details on when, for example, a worrisome tree on a boulevard is going to be removed are not of general interest, and can be dealt with outside the public process. Councillors need to remember that our job isn't to micromanage project priorities, or tell staff how to do their jobs. If a constituent calls with a question, a councillor's job is to find the answer, not to get the job moved higher on the priority list.
Limiting questions to the public council meeting, rather than having them raised in all three forums (council, executive and committee of the whole) would also save time, as would limiting each councillor to the number of questions at each meeting, or perhaps having questions at alternate meetings, as we do now with public forum.
I would rather we had explored some options for solving the perceived problem, rather than just abolishing completely the idea of raising questions publicly. Most of us talked about improving transparency with city business when we were asking for people's support in the last election - now we have taken away one of our tools for transparency, which I'm sure is disappointing to more people than just me and two other members of council.
"The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge." - Thomas Berger