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Council still mulling procedural bylaw (3 photos)

Citizen urges city to tweak wording and allow more public input

City council's procedural bylaw was debated on Tuesday night, as local citizen and frequent council observer John Ivanovs made his feelings known.

"Ironically enough I'm here addressing council about the public's right to address council," he said.

In the latest proposed update, Ivanovs said a clause was removed, one that is vital to maintaining the transparency of council.

That clause allowed any member of the public present in the chambers near the beginning of a meeting to request to have their voice heard during said meeting, providing it passed with a two-thirds majority vote from the nine members of council.

"This enabled the citizens of the city to provide timely, and possibly critical, input to council prior to action being taken on current issues," he said.

The new update has an application deadline of noon, the Wednesday before a meeting, for members of the public to formally request to be added to the agenda. The issue with that, according to Ivanovs, is that the council agenda is usually only made available to the public late Wednesday afternoons, and sometimes, Thursday mornings.

Notice is required to be received by Clerks Department two Fridays before a meeting.

"This in essence, negates the possibility of any public input on items that council will be deciding on during the upcoming meetings, unless one could foretell the future. The above procedure does allow the general public to suggest new initiatives for council's consideration, but is woefully lacking in allowing the public input on current matters. This results in a great deal of negative public outcry on social media, after council has made its decisions. Especially when first, second, and third readings of the bylaws, and voting on the bylaw, occurs on the same night," said Ivanovs.

He said he was only permitted to present on Tuesday night due to the fact that Councillor Joe Campbell requested additional information on the bylaw amendment.

"Public access to council and the ability of the public to make its opinions known are crucial in a fully functional democracy. Politics is a very dynamic situation, with opinions and needs changing rapidly," said Ivanovs.

"The public should be able to go in and give their opinions on what's happening that night."

Mayor Steve Black said he had no issue with the request, and that council is currently operating under the two-thirds majority system of adding an item to the agenda 'late'.

"I don't think it's a contentious issue with council. We're already doing it. It's just whether or not our procedural bylaw actually allows us to do it," said Black.

He said the issue could likely be solved by simply adding a few words to the bylaw to include 'the public'.

Councillor Pat Bamford was the first to address Ivanovs. He thanked him for his interest in the procedural bylaw.

"First of all, most of our resolutions and bylaws are done over two meetings, most of them are," he said, adding that bylaws are 'flexible documents' that can be revised as needed.

Bamford said his issue with the general public coming forward just before a council meeting, without the proper procedures, is that the meetings could in theory be taken over by the public, extending the length of said meetings, and becoming generally disruptive.

"We have to understand that council is elected on your behalf, to make decisions on your behalf. Council is not here to enter into debate. That's not what we're here for. We encourage public input, but it's not intended for an ongoing debate," he said.

He agreed that there should be a way for the public to be able to see what's on the agenda and provide input, but that there has to be some kind of structure.

"You would be aware. You would see the agenda Wednesday. If we had, let's say, an ability for the public to present something Thursday morning, or something of that nature, I would let the clerk decide. But to come forward on 'the day of' opens a concern, and that has been proven in other communities," said Bamford.

Bamford speaksCouncillor Pat Bamford expressed concerns about meetings being 'commandeered' by the public. Andrew Autio for TimminsToday

Black said he would be fine with whatever council decided, and that he can't recall a time when a request from a  member of the public was denied the opportunity to speak. He mentioned that perhaps there could be a window from Wednesday afternoon, when the agenda is often released, to Friday at noon, for the public to submit a letter of request to be included on the upcoming agenda.

"That still gives council the weekend to have that presentation or report in front of them, knowing what the member of the public will be coming to speak about," he said.

Campbell wasn't sure why bylaw was even being altered in the first place.

"I don't know why the present thing hasn't worked over the years. If someone wanted to make a presentation last minute, it requires two thirds of the members present. So council has the right to say 'no, we're not going to hear you, we don't think it's right to hear this tonight." he said.

"I'm a firm believer that any member of the public that wishes to address council should be given that opportunity, whether it's within a time frame or not," added Campbell. 

He pointed to certain reports that have been added 'late' to the agendas that don't meet the supposedly required time frames.

Councilor Noella Rinaldo said her only request would be that whatever the presentation or narrative is on a late addition, that councillors see it ahead of time.

"It doesn't matter if it's council or the public, as long as we have something, that we kind of know the tone or the direction that they're going in," she said.

Bamford then said that perhaps the city should consult an expert on municipal procedures before making any changes.

Black said that some other muncipalities have 'much looser' wording on their procedures, which can lead to 100 people showing up to speak on a topic, which turns into a filibuster.

"Council is still fully in control with this. It takes two thirds majority. So if you had 10 people come to you at the start of the meeting saying 'I want to speak to this, I want to speak to this, I want to speak to this' council could say no and not let any of them speak, or it could let the first one come and speak, and then ask if any of them have anything in addition to contribute," he said.

Ivanovs summed up his presentation by saying that simply adding 'any member of the public' to the bylaw would fix the issue, noting that the power would still ultimately be in council's hands with the two-thirds majority requirement.

Councillor Rick Dubeau later suggested that council defer the decision to amend the procedural bylaw until the next meeting, a request which was ultimately approved.