I was sorry to miss the public participation meeting held before the Finance and Administration Committee on Monday. Unfortunately, I, like many citizens of this fair city, had commitments in the middle of the day, commitments that could not easily be abandoned.
That was too bad, because the item under discussion and on which the committee wanted to receive public feedback was the matter of the behaviour of the public when it claims its right to attend meetings of its democratically elected members of council. However, with little notice and poor timing, only a dozen or so citizens were able to oblige. I was unable to join them until the opportunity had already been concluded, so I am relying on the agenda documents, the media reports and conversations with observers and participants after the fact.
From my perspective, the big question about this item is who commissioned it. The official line is that, as a result of a question by Councillor Joni Baechler about how council deals procedurally with reconsiderations of a decided matter of council, the city clerk’s office noticed that London, unlike some other jurisdictions, doesn’t have a by-law specifying how the public should behave at meetings. The city clerk then decided to fill the gap and provided a set of rules: no talking, cheering, applauding, heckling, eating, drinking, etc. And no posters or signs. And definitely no disrespectful language, especially in reference to dignitaries such as members of any level of government.
This is puzzling. The clerk’s office is a busy place. The clerk and her deputies are busy people. Would they really look for opportunities to add to their workload? And would they do so without first alerting council about the policy vacuum? And, if the idea originated somewhere else, with whom? And why?
To the best of my knowledge, there have not been any serious problems with inappropriate behaviour on the part of the public. Sure, there are times when members of the public express their appreciation of a council decision with applause, or, conversely, the occasional groans or even boos. But disruptions are rare and short-lived. At the budget meeting at which eight councillors cut funding to affordable housing in half, a minister entered the main floor and lay down on it before the councillors in protest. He was quickly removed. No biggie. Just last week, the eight recognized the error of their ways and restored that money. So whose behaviour was more reprehensible?
Before I was elected to the Board of Control, I participated in a protest in front of city hall wearing a poster which asked members of council, “Who’s your developer daddy?” When the council convened, I and others with me carried those signs into the public gallery. Those signs pointed out the relationship between campaign funding and council decisions. I considered it a public service. It made the front page of the London Free Press.
Public protest is a form of public engagement, as is applause in the gallery. This council has articulated its interest in public engagement, but sometimes the sentiments are more appealing than the reality.
Despite the short notice (an advertisement in the London Free Press on Saturday), some members of the public, including former city councillor Sandy Levin, did manage to convey their opposition to the proposed by-law. At least one, Vicki VanLinden, pointed out that bad behaviour was more likely to emanate from the council semi-circle than from the public gallery.
I can certainly vouch for that, having had an opportunity to view behaviour from the council floor and the public gallery.
The meeting was presided over by acting mayor, Steve Orser. Although he handled well the part of the meeting that I was able to observe, his behaviour on the council floor has not always been exemplary. He acknowledged as much in a media interview following the meeting but suggested that, with the public under restraint, he would be more likely to behave better himself, without the public to egg him on.
In any event, he was the only committee member to vote against a motion by Councillor Nancy Branscombe, to replace the bylaw with a simple statement indicating that proper respect and decorum was expected of the public. He worried that if people were permitted to bring in food they might throw tomatoes and apples at the council or antagonize each other in the gallery. “We can’t be refereeing between different groups,” he said, making it sound like a confrontation between the Jets and the Sharks. Or the Angels and the Outlaws.
The only projectile I recall was a pencil-throwing incident, but that was by a member of council. Ditto for name-calling and other disrespectful behaviours. And, while not specifically occurring in the council chambers, I do recall a certain mayor suggesting that the prime minister “get his ass down here”, not exactly the greatest measure of respect for elected officials.
In that same interview, Orser acknowledged that it was in fact some members of council who had requested the greater control over the behaviour of the public. While he initially attempted to cast the blame on Baechler for raising the issue of how reconsiderations are handled, he eventually acknowledged that he was among those who had made that request. He did not identify others who had also done so.
It’s not over, of course. Although the other members of the committee—Branscombe, Baechler, Hubert and Denise Brown—did not share his interest in cracking down on the public, the usual chair, Mayor Joe Fontana, was away checking out other cities of opportunity in China, Japan and Korea. He’ll be back in May when this matter comes back to be considered by the entire council, including those other unidentified members who wanted to see the public shape up.
But perhaps the days of “Do as I say, not as I do” are over. In the words of Vicki VanLinden, “You are not our bosses.”