Welcome to London Civic Watch

"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The longest night

The August council meeting was the longest I can recall, a result of a long agenda with controversial issues, an inexperienced chairperson, a new voting system, and a crowded public gallery. There were some surprises, too, which showed that at least some of the councillors had been doing their homework.

It was a long night indeed. It started promptly at 5 p.m. but I didn’t get away until well after midnight when the public portion of the meeting concluded. Apparently, it was 2:30 a.m. before the in camera portion was done. According to a number of councillors and administrators, it was the worst meeting ever. I certainly can’t recall anything quite so bad during my four years on council and then we had 19 people all wanting to have their say. At last Monday’s meeting, there were only 14 with the mayor away.

That was undoubtedly part of the problem. I have not been one to praise the mayor’s skills in conducting a meeting since he tends to view the rules of order as optional, but he has been improving and in his absence any semblance of order virtually disappeared.

Acting mayor and chair Bud Polhill has a lot to learn on this score. Despite his being the longest serving member currently on the council, his grasp of procedure is limited and his ability to implement what he does know even more so. Councillors routinely violated the time limits for speaking, spoke more than once to an issue, and cross debated. Motions were crafted on the floor through a process of haggling. One motion was defeated 14 to 0. Not even the councillor who brought it forward could support it.

I understood from previous meetings that councillors would be trained on using the new electronic voting system. Perhaps some of them missed the orientation sessions as several struggled to hit the right button at the right time. One councillor, Ward 9’s Dale Henderson, wondered why his vote was recorded as opposed when he hadn’t voted at all. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just abstain.

“You’re here to vote,” he was told by Baechler, who was presenting a report. He seemed unaware of the Council Procedure bylaw on this score. Councillors are there to make decisions, not to duck them, although that didn’t stop some from leaving the meeting when a vote was imminent.  Ward 14’s Sandy White did so without logging out of the system. She was recorded as voting nay even though she was out of the room.

Nevertheless, the automatically recorded votes provide a valuable record for the public. It is clear that one or two councillors voted in error but they’ll all get on to it quickly. Even with a show of hands or a voice vote one can get distracted and get it wrong. I do recall an early vote in which I voted nay even though I supported the motion. By then I had gotten so used to voting the opposite way of deputy mayor Gosnell that it was a knee jerk reaction. Fortunately, mine wasn't the vote which carried the day!

The system allows up to five items to be voted on simultaneously. Any councillor may ask for an individual vote on any one of the items if s/he wants to vote against it or simply make a point of ensuring that everyone is on the record on a specific issue, something that Baechler called for in relation to one item on the agenda. After the decision on extending services to Arva had been made, Baechler asked for a separate vote on a motion to send a letter to the provincial government expressing concern about the rates of growth occurring just outside the city’s boundaries. Interestingly, everyone who voted to help Arva get more growth also supported sending this letter!

Now, a little about the specific items addressed at the meeting:

Filters for the library. This was one of those items that was lumped in with several others. No one asked for it to be voted on separately, not even Ward 6’s Nancy Branscombe who, along with me, received an award from the Canadian Library Association for our opposition to filtering adult computers. Also opposed when we were on the library board was David Winninger. I understand that Branscombe, as a current member of the library board, wanted to defend the board’s position but was advised that doing so would not make any difference to the outcome while eroding her political capital. She remained silent.

Not so Councilllor Henderson. He wondered what the point was of dealing with this at all since the council has no power to direct the library. He has been advocating for more control over the agencies, boards and commissions (ABC's) funded by the city. Monday night was not a good night for doing that. It was clear to those of us in the gallery that the current members are having great difficulty just handling the city’s business, let alone take over the library or Museum London or any other ABC’s. In fact it was Henderson who complained bitterly about the workload after only a month on the job, a complaint he reiterated later on Monday. There are just too many meetings and he can’t get to all of them.

Councillor White advised him not to refer to the “power” of the library board. After all, “Their money comes from the taxpayer,” she pointed out. “Be careful about saying they have all this power.”

The motion that the library board be asked to give consideration to filtering all library computers to ensure that there is no access to pornography passed unanimously along with several other motions. No one asked about how effective filters are, how much do they cost, or what might be the downside. Nor did anyone ask for or provide a definition of pornography or whether the library board ever reviews its policy. 

A public participation meeting at the library is scheduled for September 22nd, a month and a half earlier than usual.

Green Bin Pilot. Some fancy footwork was obviously being done behind the scenes on this one. The mayor has been very clear that he doesn’t want any part of a green bin program and the motion by Matt Brown to move ahead with it had lost on a tie at the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee with the mayor, Paul VanMeerbergen and Orser opposed. Since then, however, the matter had been examined by Services Review Committee (SRC) which had determined that since the pilot project had been approved previously (although delayed) it would require a re-consideration, meaning a two-thirds vote, to stop it from being implemented now. The decision that it had to go ahead had been endorsed unanimously at SRC, a motion which had been seconded by the mayor himself! After much procedural wrangling, the vote was held on whether to re-consider the implementation of the pilot project. Only Henderson, Orser, Denise Brown,  VanMeerbergen and Polhill supported it, the rest voted nay meaning that the pilot project is now a go. 

An impressive political sleight of hand in getting that done; that’s why you have to stay awake at the meetings and read your background reports. And you need to keep your ear to the ground.

VanMeerbergen was not happy, especially when it was pointed out to him that it is organic matter that produces the methane gas. His view was that since organics break down easily, they help the landfill along. He had used that line every time the issue came forward and didn’t appreciate being told that he didn’t understand the process. And he clearly didn't like the process whereby this item suddenly required a two-thirds vote!

Denise Brown and Bud Polhill argued that home composting is superior to green bins, apparently not understanding that composting is difficult for an aging population in severe winters and for those who live in apartments and condos with limited land. 

A pilot project for backyard chickens was the final main item to come forward before the dinner break. Despite the fact that 200 people had come forward to a public participations meeting, most of them in support of a pilot project and many offering to participate in or assist others with it, Matt Brown’s proposal to take no action was endorsed by council. 

But not before a prolonged discussion of what alternative remedies were available to the proponents. It was pointed out that the bylaw is not proactively enforced; in short, unless there is a complaint from the community, no action will be taken. Should a complaint come forward and enforcement officers get involved, those charged with a violation may still appeal the implementation of the bylaw to council and there are precedents in this regards. Last year, a person with a disability was allowed to keep her pet chickens on humanitarian grounds. There was also speculation in that situation about who made the complaint since all of the neighbours, resident's in Matt Brown's Ward 7, supported her keeping the chickens.

Councillors Orser, Branscombe, Baechler and Bryant opposed the lack of action on this matter.

Then it was time for the dinner break. If memory serves, there was probably chicken on the menu. But factory farmed, would be my guess. 

Not free range.

At least, not as free ranging as the council debate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suppose the really detailed important stuff got buried with the squaking about chickens and the library. Library is just one of those examples of the thinking that all you do is cut the "waste" and magically taxes go down and services are either unchanged or improved. I learned at 5 yrs of age there was no Santa or tooth fairy. When will some members of council get it?