March 3, 2015 – Public Participation at Council Meetings
This morning at about 9:30 am, I sent an email to Will Moore on this subject. I have made a couple of minor edits but not changed anything of substance, and added the link to the draft by-law from the Agenda package for the January 21 meeting, and a link to the minutes of that meeting.
Good morning Will,
Since the Bio-Digester is on the agenda for tomorrow’s Council meeting, I thought I’d check the procedural by-law this morning. As you know, there is nothing on the website about inviting or encouraging public input at meetings, and the procedural by-law has never been among the by-laws posted.
However, I remembered that procedures were considered by the new Council, so I dug back into the agenda packages since December. Procedural By-Law 2012-40 dated October 2012 was included in the package for the December 3, 2014 Council meeting. It appears that Council made some changes to this by-law and that revisions were discussed and incorporated in a draft that was part of the package for the meeting on January 21, 2015. However, the minutes of that meeting record no discussion, simply noting that the by-law was “deferred.” I did not see it on the agenda of any subsequent meeting. Therefore, does Procedural By-Law 2012-40 apply to tomorrow’s meeting?
In one way, I was pleased to see that the draft By-Law in the package for the January 21 meeting may not yet be approved because in my opinion it contains a fundamental flaw from the perspective of those who may wish to attend or speak at Council meetings. The best way to explain this is with respect to Agenda item 10.1 (Bio-Digester) on tomorrow’s agenda; I plan to attend, and may have a question or comment.
If I do have a question or comment, I would hope that the Council will lean towards a broad interpretation of Article 4.4 of the draft By-Law 2015-11 and provide an opportunity for me to ask a question or make an observation during the discussion of the Bio-Digester; this would be “with the approval of Council” of course. However, a plain-language interpretation of this Article is that it applies only to items of business not listed on the Agenda.
If any comments or questions are considered to be a “Delegation / Deputation,” Article 5 requires that I provide a written summary four full days in advance. In this case (and in most other cases), this is impossible because the Agenda isn’t made public until two days in advance, and of course there is not going to be any discussion until the meeting itself.
Therefore, my reading of draft By-Law 2015-11 is that any input from persons or groups to any current Agenda item is not permissible except if the rules are suspended in accordance with Article 17 (Suspension of Rules). The need to “suspend the rules” in each and every case of anyone wanting to say something at a meeting after getting past the Delegation / Deputation point on the Agenda leaves the impression that the Council doesn’t really need or want public input. I am certain that this is not the case.
Georgian Bluffs makes provision for questions from people in attendance, but this is before any unfinished business or new business. This is a marginal improvement because it explicitly provides relief from the requirement to provide written information four business days in advance.
Clearly, Chatsworth Council needs to have procedures in place to conduct meetings and get through the public’s business in an orderly fashion. At the same time, however, Council needs to make it clear that public input in desired and encouraged, and isn’t just considered as some kind of “afterthought” to meet the minimum standards contained in legislation.
November 17, 2014 – October 27, 2014 was a red-letter day for residents of Chatsworth because it was the first day that an entire Council Agenda package was posted on the Chatsworth website, rather than just a “bare” Agenda (without any supporting documents). The normal procedure has been to post the “bare” Agenda two days before each meeting, so I assume that will be the case with the full packages, too.
Most candidates in the recent election expressed support for improving transparency and openness. The posting of Agenda packages is a very good first step in this direction.
The size of the packages does create problems for anyone with a slow internet connection, however. For example, the September 3, 2014 package (that I obtained in advance of the meeting by email) was 7.5 MB and the October 15 package was almost 13 MB. Without high-speed internet connections, packages this large take a long time to download.
There is a way around this, however. On November 13, CAO/Clerk Will Moore and I discussed the possibility of posting individual components, like I have been doing, rather than posting the package as a single document.
Beginning with the November 19 package, I have also provided an indication of the size of individual components. This allows anyone to peruse the Agenda and read or download supporting documents on a more selective basis. If and when Chatsworth takes this approach, I will stop posting Agenda packages.
Francis Bacon said: “Knowledge is power.”
More recently, author Tom Clancy said: “The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”
Of course it is ridiculous to say that the government of Chatsworth is “despotic” or that the Leaders of Chatsworth are “the elite,” but Clancy’s underlying principle is applicable. By effectively keeping information from residents and taxpayers, the messages being sent by our Leaders are: “You don’t need to know anything. We know better than you. We don’t need or want your input or opinions. Butt out. Pay your taxes and keep quiet.”
Until recently, it was impossible to find out what was on the Agenda for a Chatsworth Council meeting without showing up at the meeting and picking up one of the hard copies of what I call the “bare Agenda.” This is nothing more than a list of topics to be discussed.
In response to pressure to do better, an electronic copy of the bare Agenda for each upcoming Council meeting is now posted on the Chatsworth website approximately 48 hours in advance. As far as I know, this does not apply in the case of Committee meetings which remain shrounded in secrecy.
In response to even more pressure, the Leaders finally agreed to provide the full Agenda package (bare Agenda plus all attachments such as reports and correspondence) 48 hours in advance of Council meetings. But to get it, you have to ask. The package arrives by email. It is sometimes very large (10 Mb) but always in a very inconvenient form.
Administratively, it would be much easier to post a full Agenda package on the website, of course, but that would mean that anybody could see the information presented to members of Council for the purpose of making decisions that affect us! Making this information freely available would no doubt result in Chatsworth residents sometimes asking inconvenient questions, perhaps even demanding explanations.
This would represent a loss of power and control for our Leaders. So the email method was adopted as a form of “damage control” (from their perspective, the “least bad” option).
I will provide more background on this subject in due course. But for now, I intend to make the full Agenda package for each upcoming meeting available on this blog as soon as possible after receiving it by email. And I will break it down into its constituent parts so that it will be much easier to access and use. You will still be able to browse through the whole package on-line, but you won’t need to download the whole kit and caboodle if you just want or need one document.