Thursday, October 19, 2017

Council to explore new areas for community involvement in Council sessions

Councillor Barry Cunningham had some
thoughts Monday night on the city's
past cancellation of Committee
of the Whole sessions
The desire to seek more engagement from the public in council proceedings received a fairly extensive review on Monday evening, as Councillor Barry Cunningham outlined some of his concerns over the recent cancellation of a Committee of the Whole session from September.

In his review of recent events, Mr. Cunningham rightly observed, that even if the City doesn't have an agenda for that council element on the night, they should not cancel the opportunity for the public to come before council, further noting that by cancelling those sessions it sends a wrong message.

On the theme of those meetings, Mr. Cunningham added that he doesn't believe that the Committee of the Whole sessions are as effective as they could be, suggesting that the Council may wish to discuss how they could improve that element of the council process.

He called attention to a concept put forward by Councillor Mirau that would see the meetings evolve into more of a coffee shop type of discussion, where residents come together in an informal setting to talk to council members.

He also reminded Council of his frequent requests over the last few years for City department heads to provide reports to council and how council members could make use of the Committee of the Whole process to provide the venue for those reports on a more frequent schedule.

Following up on Mr. Cunningham's notes, Councillor Blair Mirau offered up some observations as to how he believes the process could be improved.

Mr. Mirau made note of how the Committee of the Whole is an opportunity for the public to come to speak to Council, seemingly suggesting that the current situation of the venue of the council chamber and having the cameras on, serves to intimidate the public.

As for his approach to moving forward towards future engagement, he observed as to how Smithers hosts informal coffee talks that offer up for conversation, and how a new approach might provide for a better way to engage with the community.

The Mayor also weighed in with his own views on how the Committee of the Whole process works observing that how the Committee of the Whole's function is to provide a conversation on a specific topic and is not designed as a public engagement tool.

Mr. Brain offered up the idea of perhaps adopting a mix between using the Committee of the Whole and other public engagement opportunities such as the Redesign Rupert initiative as options  to explore.

On the theme of the cancelled Committee of the Whole meeting of September, the Mayor noted that it's not the first time that Council had cancelled that particular element of the council agenda (see here for some previous instances), and that normally people register to appear and if no one comes forward then they determine that there is no interest, not that the council doesn't want people to come forward.

He also noted that other communities have different approaches towards delivering the Committee of the Whole, and how the feedback he has received related to the process is that people don't feel comfortable coming on a microphone just to chat with the council members.

While Mayor Brain did agree that an informal process such as coffee talk would be helpful, he also observed that there are times when people need to come forward in more formal settings.

The Mayor also noted for Councillor Cunningham that Council had started the process of receiving presentations from departments, noting for the record, that Council had recently hosted a presentation from the RCMP detachment and would be moving forward with other departments in the months ahead.

As for a further review on the theme of how to address the Committee of the Whole questions, the Mayor suggested that it could be a topic for the next Committee of the Whole Session which would come at the end of this month.

The idea of introducing an informal get together is something that has been floated in the past, the theme one that is found part of the narrative during election campaigns. The opportunity to move forward with such an initiative would be a welcome opportunity, particularly if it might lead to a wider engagement on civic issues among residents of the city.

However, there should be some concern over any call to eliminate the opportunity for comment through the Committee of the Whole process, which offers up the chance for residents to put their concerns on the record,  with those comments remaining available through the broadcast of the Council meetings for public review.

As well, by being part of a public archive such as the Council recordings, the ability to follow up on those concerns is readily available, something that would not be the case in an informal session such as coffee chat, where no official account of the concerns of residents would be recorded.

While the Committee of the Whole process as it exists doesn't always provide for stirring debate, and can lead to some uncomfortable moments from time to time,  as we've outlined on the blog in the past it has provided for a valuable forum for residents to raise the alarm over the direction that Council might be heading.

One significant example of the importance of the Committee of the Whole public comment opportunity, was the debate a few years ago related to Library funding.

It made for an engagement from the public that as events evolved, saw the City revisit it's plan to reduce funding for the facility and led to the city to review how it approaches funding for a number of the larger community grant recipients.

That period, early on this council's mandate, highlighted, how if an issue is important enough, the public will come out and deliver their comments to Council. 

With that in mind, the members of the current collective should ensure that the option of an on the record opportunity to address their council remains a fixture on the City Council Agendas.

Last month we noted that at times, some of the more recent decisions by Council have suggested that they were sliding backwards on civic engagement, eliminating the opportunity to be on the record at City Council on issues of concern, would make for another mark on that catalogue of notes.

You can examine the list of Council meetings from this year from our archive page here, which notes which sessions have been cancelled and which have been closed to the public through the course of the last ten months.

A review of the discussion on the theme can be found from the City's Video Archive, starting at the one hour, one minute point.

For more items related to Monday's City Council session, see our Council Timeline feature.

Further background on City Council discussion topics can be found on our Council Archive page.

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