BLOG #666: After yet another city council meeting running into the following early morning, there have been complaints about the long hours. Can something be done to fix the problem? Certainly, here are 6 ideas to give some giddy-up to civic government.
Thursday, May 3, 2012 – London
With yet another gathering extending well past midnight, there are grumbles once again from our ‘over-worked’ dearly elected: What can we do to reduce the length of city council meetings?
Thank you for asking. At no extra charge, here are 6 suggestions for getting the city’s work done before the councillors turn to pumpkins.
1. Return to the practice of holding council meetings every two weeks instead of the current cycle of every three weeks. With less time elapsing between meetings this would reduce agenda build-up, not to mention speed up the whole decision-making process.
2. Strictly limit speakers to five minutes, which is council’s official policy. At that rate all 15 council members could speak on an issue and hold the vote in under an hour and a half. Tuesday night’s fluoridation debate, during which 14 members spoke, took 95 minutes to complete. The Reservoir Hill debate, during which only 9 members spoke, took 61 minutes. That’s an average per speaker in each case of 6.8 minutes.
3. Stop allowing councillors to drag administrative staff into debates with self-serving questions to which they already know the answers. If councillors have questions for staff they should be asked before meetings, preferably in writing, with the answers shared with everyone, including the public. No one but council members should be allowed to speak at council meetings; oral questions should be confined to committee meetings. Imposing this rule would also reduce the need for large numbers of senior staff attending council meetings on the chance they might have to field a loaded question.
4. Start council meetings at 6:30 or 7 p.m., after everyone has eaten. Then the meeting could go right through to completion without a break. The current 5 p.m. start time means council breaks at 6:30 or 7 p.m. for dinner – for which taxpayers pick up the tab, by the way. When they return they are often a tad drowsy and it’s 30 minutes before the pace picks up again. Besides saving money on the cancelled dinner, taxpayers would benefit by not having to wait in the corridors for an hour while council is chowing down.
5. Get better control of the agenda. This can be done in several ways. First, stop council’s habit to doing committee work during council meetings. Second, push more of the administrative decisions to staff where they belong. Council meetings are for policy decisions. Third, bring the most controversial agenda items to the beginning of the meeting when everyone is fresh and focused.
6. Put someone in charge who knows how to run a meeting with efficiency, a presiding officer elected by council. Mayor Joe Fontana is not very good at this job; he is too partisan himself, he gets involved in the debate, he often interjects rude comments (although he is improving), he forgets what time it is and then he loses control of the meeting. This is not a wild idea by the way; it’s the system Toronto uses.
Notwithstanding Councillor Orser’s relentless campaigning for full-time councillors – he assumes that would garner a pay increase – this isn’t the answer. Council members tend to work as hard as is their habit – and Mr. Orser, who claims he already works at the job full-time, is far from the hardest working councillor.
Nor is the answer to start meetings earlier. This wouldn’t shorten meetings; they would only end earlier. And it would be for council’s convenience, not the public’s. To ensure open and accountable civic government – which is one goal of this council – council meetings should be held at a time when most people can attend.
NO POSTING FRIDAY – It’s my birthday and I’m taking the day off. Back Monday.