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Councillors quarrel over 'fine balance' between meeting structure and spontaneity

One councillor called meetings a 'night at the improv.' another suggests more rules would push discussion out of public eye
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Collingwood council during a June 21 council meeting.

Collingwood councillors had a row last night over whether their meetings are over, or under-scripted.

A three-part motion pitched by one councillor proposed tighter rules for advance notice of council-led motions and questions for staff. 

Some said the proposal would be akin to orchestrating council meetings and would push discussion outside the public realm. 

Councillor Bob Madigan, with support from Coun. Steve Berman, pitched new rules to require council members ask questions of staff well in advance of council meetings if they require a response at the meeting. He also wanted to put a stop to councillors bringing forward motions for a vote without giving a heads-up to other council members.

Councillor Deb Doherty said formalizing this kind of activity would be “completely taking all spontaneity out of council meetings.” 

“Quite frankly, I think we run the risk of looking anything but transparent," she said. 

Madigan’s motion called for three things to be added to the town’s procedural bylaws: 

  1. That council be required to submit questions requiring a staff response prior to 1 p.m. on Fridays for the following Monday meeting, with the caveat that sometimes questions may arise at the meeting that won’t be known in advance 
  2. If a councillor wishes to bring forward a motion and wave the notice period so it passes during the meeting where it is raised, they should send their motion to the clerk and CAO on Fridays by 1 p.m. so it can be sent to all of council in advance of the Monday meeting. (The standard for new motions from councillors requires that notice be given at one council meeting for the motion to proceed to a vote at the next council meeting. In some cases, councillors can waive the notice of motion if they get support from the rest of council to do so.)
  3. That staff bring forward updates for the town’s procedural bylaw, code of conduct and social media policy based on best practices they have identified will support transparency between council, staff, and the public. 

Only the third part of the motion passed with a 5-4 vote in favour. 

Councillor Steve Berman said Madigan’s motion “didn’t go far enough,” and is only the tip of the iceberg. 

“These meetings, to me, have turned into a little bit of evening at the improv.,” said Berman, calling on council to be more efficient and respectful. 

Berman suggested council meetings were too long, ranging from 4.5 to 6 hours over the last couple of months. 

“That’s unprepared, to me,” said Berman. “We all have the work in front of us, and we’re not doing it.” 

He noted a past council voted to sell 50 per cent of COLLUS during a one-hour meeting, and the last council voted to call a judicial inquiry (over the COLLUS sale decision) during a three-hour meeting. 

“I don’t think this council is dealing with any bigger or more important issues,” said Berman. “I think we’ve got into a lot of bad habits on things that we’ve been trained not to do.” 

His comments sparked responses from exception to offence from his fellow councillors. 

“I never once considered it night at the improv.” said Councillor Tina Comi. "We are in the midst of a water crisis and I find it surprising that at this particular junction any councillor would be seeking to put any type of limitation around our duty to ask questions on behalf of our taxpayers.” 

Councillor Kathy Jeffery argued the changes push council discussions out of the public eye. 

“I really feel that meetings are being run before the meeting,” said Jeffery. “So the public isn’t seeing the entire development of the information coming into consideration of our discussion.” 

Deputy Mayor Keith Hull said he was “quite offended” by Berman’s assertion that members of council were not doing their job. 

“I love what I do and I can’t think of a job I’ve been paid less for in terms of number of hours,” he said. “I think you can afford me the latitude of being able to read an agenda as a single father with another career on my timeline.”

In 2020, councillors received a base salary of approximately $25,000, with the mayor’s base salary at $45,000 and the deputy mayor’s base at $32,000. 

“We have become far too structured,” said Hull. “Unless [council salaries] bump up to $50,000 a year and significantly above for [mayor and deputy mayor] … it’s expected councillors will have other commitments from an employment standpoint and/or other commitments in general and they need to be given some latitude as it relates to when they can review documentation provided to them.” 

He noted councillors can vote to defer a matter if they feel they need more information. 

Councilor Yvonne Hamlin said she expected Collingwood would one day move to daytime meetings and full-time council members with increased salaries to accommodate for the town’s growth. 

“As our municipality grows, we are dealing with more complex issues, whether it’s complex development questions or not having enough water,” said Hamlin. 

Coun. Madigan conceded defeat before the votes were taken. 

“I get that this vote is going to tank horribly, and I’m OK with that,” he said. “I never wanted to take any questions out of [meetings]. I just want to make sure staff have the time to inform us properly. We’re making big decisions, but we all need to be informed.” 

Mayor Brian Saunderson encouraged council members to embrace challenges. 

“We’re all pushing this corporation forward,” said Saunderson. “We don’t want group think, we want us operating on different levels and from different perspectives, and that’s what challenges us, and what challenges staff to make sure reports are thorough and, where there are gaps, to answer those gaps.” 

He encouraged council to keep intentions in mind and work together. 

“I think the issues raised in the motion are where practice hits procedure,” said Saunderson. “It’s a fine balance between being over-scripted and under scripted. 

There were three votes for the three parts of the motion. 

The first proposal about questions submitted in advance was defeated with only Coun. Madigan and Berman in favour. 

The second proposal about councillors providing advance notice if they want to pass a motion without prior notice was also defeated with only Coun. Berman, Madigan, and McLeod in favour. 

The final motion asking staff for recommendations on best practices for the procedural bylaw, code of conduct, and social media policy passed with Coun. Comi, Hamlin, and Doherty and Deputy Mayor Hull opposed. 

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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