Saanich council considers new meeting procedures

Members of the public and council like the idea of splitting council meetings, but largely reject efforts to sacrifice public input for efficiency.

That conclusion emerged after members of the public and council considered a report that proposed considerable changes to the bylaw that governs council procedures.

“It’s certainly a thought-provoking document,” said Coun. Fred Haynes after director of legislative services Ken Watson had presented the report Monday night. However he also stressed that he did not share some of the concerns identified in the report including the length of council meetings and the perception that the informal open forum session is unimportant to council.

The report responded to concerns about the effectiveness of the existing bylaw after complaints from members of council and citizens. They focused among other points on the length of council meetings. Since May 2016, 30 per cent of all meetings that started at 7 p.m. adjourned after the stipulated adjournment time of 11 p.m, according to the report. The average meeting adjourned at 10:15 p.m., the latest at 1:37 a.m.

The report cites four factors: scheduling regular and committee-of-the-whole meetings back-to-back; the length of debate; the number of speakers and their speaking time during public input; and the later start of the last meeting of the month to accommodate the informal open forum session.

Accordingly, it recommends separating regular council meetings and committee-of-the-whole meetings. The current arrangement does not constitute “procedural best practice” because it threatens decision-making.

“After several hours of concentration, especially late at night, the ‘intellectual capacity’ of any group is compromised by mental fatigue,” said Watson. “This can lead to less effective communications, and reduced decision-making quality.”

Several councillors echoing comments from the public voiced support for the recommendation. Mayor Richard Atwell said it would be an improvement for everybody. Haynes agreed and actually pushed council to adapt the measure.

If council were to separate regular council meetings from committee-of-the-whole meetings, council would move from 33 meeting weeks under the current schedule to 41 meetings with 21 regular meetings and 20 committee-of-the-whole meetings, as opposed to 33 each.

But council largely balked at recommendations to limit public input and council deliberations.

Coun. Judy Brownoff said public input is crucial to council’s performance. “That is where we get our information,” she said. Coun. Susan Brice agreed, noting councillors might not be able to reach a decision until they have heard from all interested speakers. “I don’t want us to be overly concerned about some of the long meetings that we have had,” she said. She acknowledged that the recent run of “thorny issues” have lengthened debate. But she would also like to see council preserve all opportunities to share points with each other.

Initial public reactions favoured the separation of regular council meetings from committee-of-the-whole meetings and the proposed addition of a short but regular public input session during which members of the public could bring up issues not on the formal agenda. Other commentators however raised questions about the enforce-ability and substantive fairness of measures to limit public input.

Karen Harper, who recently declared her candidacy for the open council seat, wondered whether all sides of an issue could be heard if council were to limit the combined speaking time during committee-of-the-whole meetings.

Following nearly 90 minutes of input and debate, council asked staff to revise the recommendations with Atwell opposed.

Council is a decision-making body, he said. “I kind of wonder if we are able to make decisions without being spoon-fed every single time,” he said.

Brice defended council’s decision to seek revisions. “This has been a good committee-of-the-whole discussion…and I certainly don’t expect staff to just dream up something,” she said. “Obviously, there has been some significant direction in everybody’s comments. “

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