Some significant changes might be afoot at Blue Mountains council meetings in the future.
During a special Committee of the Whole meeting Monday afternoon, the five members of council present listened to a lengthy presentation on proposed changes to the town’s procedural bylaw. Many of those changes are due to new revisions to provincial legislation, particularly the Municipal Act. Others are due to requests from residents for more public input.
In concert with that, the council opened the meeting by listening to a deputation by Rosemary Mesley on behalf of the citizen’s forum group.
“Any By-law which seeks to improve communication and engagement between members of council and members of the public is to be encouraged,” she told the council. “Public participation allows the public an opportunity to present an issue, pose a question, make a recommendation or otherwise present information to council on an issue at regular council and/or committee meetings.”
“During council meetings, we would like to see up to a maximum of 15 minutes allocated in the early portion of the agenda for items listed and items not listed on the council agenda. Each person would be allowed approximately two to five minutes for public participation. We understand that the council meeting typically have a full agenda, and time constraints need to be in place. During (Committee of the Whole) meetings, we would like to see a public participation portion allocated at the start of each committee session.”
A staff recommendation presented to the council members offered similar options, although the chance for public participation was limited to committee of the whole meetings. Time for public comment would be divided into three separate 10-minute blocks during each section of the committee meeting.
That seemed to gain some general favour among the councillors.
“I think the COW open mic is very important,” said Coun. Joe Halos. “It’s a less formal atmosphere where we share ideas.”
“I think COW is an informal meeting to encourage discussion,” added Coun. Michael Martin. “That’s the more appropriate time to do it, rather than council where the decisions are to be made. Any major issues should be thrashed out fully at COW.”
However, a few minutes later, Halos asked for a staff report on adding an open comment block of time to council meetings as well, something that was not addressed in the staff report.
He also asked for a staff report on electronic participation with the public and each other during council meetings, which is something suggested in the report.
The proposed changes to the procedural bylaw include some other interesting components that various council members expressed some reservations on.
One of those includes a major change to presenting the municipal accounts. Currently, detailed lists are released as part of the council agenda. The changes to municipal legislation restrict that, due to privacy concerns and will no longer be included.
That didn’t sit well with several councillors, including Coun. Michael Seguin, who said it was an important item that needed to be transparent to both the council and the public.
“We as council do need to know where the money is being spent,” he said.
That item is being sent back to staff for further consideration. Until then, the accounts report will not be included in the agenda package.
Another item that caused some significant discussion was the definition of a meeting of council. Under the new provisions, anywhere a quorum of council can be found with the occasion to discuss or advance municipal business could be construed as a meeting. That means anywhere four members of council congregate could be termed a meeting, if it appears they might be discussing council business or has the potential to do so.
Seguin expressed some serious concerns about that change. He noted that means that if at least four councillors attend an event such as the Blue Mountains Ratepayers annual general meeting, where municipal issues are likely to be discussed, it could be called a meeting.
“Everybody is wrestling with this problem. I’m asked about this issue a lot, and I can’t really answer it,” he said, referring to questions from residents he has received.
A misunderstanding of the new definition could definitely caused problems with the public, Seguin said.
“A complaint could be erroneous, then the town becomes obligated to investigate that complaint, and it becomes a problem,” he explained to his fellow councillors.
That occasioned some further discussion, and Halos eventually offered a reasonable solution.
“Avoiding quorum is just the easiest way to avoid a problem,” he said, adding the council members must make more of an effort to coordinate their schedules to avoid the quorum issue.
Any changes to the procedural bylaw must first go to a public meeting for discussion, and then returned to council for final approval.