By Cecilia Nasmith
At its first committee-of-the-whole meeting Monday, the new Cobourg council took the time for a thorough review of the draft amended council procedural bylaw – a comprehensive 68-page document that could potentially result in big changes to how council is run.
In fact, Councillor Emily Chorley remarked at the outset of the review that she had a list of about 20 of her own amendments to put on the floor.
The report from Municipal Clerk Brent Larmer and Records and Committee Co-ordinator Robyn Bonneau set out the draft document to govern council and committee rules of order and procedure, with prospective changes in red. Deputy Mayor Suzanne Seguin presided over a review of the entire draft, heading by heading. The finished draft, with changes made, will be the subject of a Jan. 28 public meeting (at 6 p.m.) to allow public comment and review.
One immediate change could be the 4 p.m. starting time for council meetings. Chorley called it a barrier to participation for members of the public and suggested 6 p.m. That is the time council now reserves for public meetings on council and committee-of-the-whole days, but Chorley suggested public meetings could be scheduled separately on additional days.
Mayor John Henderson reminded Chorley that a previous council (which had been meeting at 7 p.m.) undertook a fairly extensive governance review.
“From that investigation, and from similar-size municipalities, we did agree to try it at 4 p.m.,” Henderson said.
“My personal experience is that we have had more people attend at 4 p.m. than we ever did at 7 p.m.”
This took into consideration staff time, he added, which is a concern not to be dismissed lightly. Staffers who attend council meetings, in many cases, have been at work since perhaps 8:30 a.m. With a 7 p.m. start time for council, that's long enough – but then there are times when a meeting has gone past 11 p.m., and those staffers who stick around for that have to be back at work at 8:30 a.m. next morning.
Councillor Brian Darling – a veteran of both 7 p.m. and 4 p.m. meetings – said he agreed with the adjustment to 6 p.m., as it was a complaint he had heard himself.
“If it were to move to 6 p.m., I would ask to reflect on how we then best approach our public meetings – we seem to be having more and more as we go through the years,” Henderson commented.
Chorley had other amendments that remove any limits from delegations, while Larmer attempted to explain that he would like to see an informal cap at four delegations per meeting just for the sake of not overloading agendas and making meetings run more efficiently. When he asks a delegation to delay for a week or two and they object, Larmer said, he usually allows them to proceed.
“We had a meeting last year with 13 delegations,” he said.
“There's more public engagement now than ever, and more information coming to council through staff reports. My job is to try to get meetings to run effectively and efficiently.”
“I don't want to give the sense we are trying to limit anyone coming before council. I agree we should not have limitations,” the mayor allowed.
Chorley even put forth an amendment banning a subsequent presentation by someone unless he or she had substantial new information. This kind of request comes in several times a year, Larmer said, and his commitment to efficient meetings typically means he is inclined to refuse such a request (noting that, in each case, his decision can be appealed).
Sometimes people just want to take a second shot, Chorley argued.
“I consider this to be far too restrictive. It is already difficult for members of the public to come forward and make their views heard. I don't think we need to add an additional restriction.”
Chorley's amendment to that effect carried four to three.
A new requirement for petitions is that, in addition to legible names, they carry legible addresses for each signatory. And, of course, no obscene or improper language is permitted.
The proposal for a quarterly open forum was changed on motions from Chorley and Nicole Beatty to an open forum to be tacked on to the end of each committee-of-the-whole meeting as an opportunity for anyone to address council, make informal comments or have questions answered on matters of municipal business. Each person wishing to take advantage of this opportunity must sign in with the municipal clerk and adhere to a 10-minute maximum.
Henderson reminded council that, over his nine years, he has seen meetings increase in length to the point that four hours is no longer uncommon.
“At what point do we become exhausted?” he wondered.
“I just want to caution you to find a balance if you are just starting out, for ourselves, for the public, for the staff – what's the balance? We could be here five, six or seven hours.”
At that point, Chorley proposed a five-minute maximum instead - “because 10 minutes is essentially the same as a delegation.” The amendment was carried.
Larmer will prepare a new draft in time for the Jan. 28 meeting.