Council will vote Nov. 28 on whether to cut public delegation time at standing committees in half, from the current 10 minutes to five minutes.
The proposed reduction in public input is one of several recommended changes to the procedurel bylaw approved at the the Community & Corporate Services (C&CS) Committee Nov. 7, with a final vote at council Nov. 28.
A subcommittee of council, including councillors Lancaster, Taylor and Craven, worked with clerks to prepare a report on changes to the procedure bylaw, including reduced public speaking time at standing committees. (Links to report below under resources).
The report still allows the full 10 minutes for presentations by local boards, agencies, commissions as well as other levels of government and city staff.
To put this in perspective, C&CS committee recently heard a presentation from the Halton District School Board on a Program and Accommodation Review that recommends closing two schools: Burlington Central High School and Lester B Pearson High School. We also heard from CentralStrong, a community group that is working to keep Burlington Central High School open. If the proposed rules had been in place, the school board would have been allowed 10 minutes to offer their information, the public only five minutes. Is this fair?
How Council Members Voted
At the Nov. 7 committee, Councillor Dennison moved the procedural bylaw report with a change to keep delegation speaking time at 10 minutes.
Votes were taken in parts.
The first vote was to keep speaking time at 10 minutes, supported by Dennison, Meed Ward and Goldring. That failed 3-3 with one member of council absent.
Then a vote was taken on the entire report, which included the recommendation that delegations be limited to 5 minutes. That passed 5 to 1 – I was the only council member to not support it. The recommendation goes to council Nov. 28 for a final vote. Further amendments can be made at council.
Data Shows the Importance of Public Input
Subsequent to the committee meeting, additional information was sent out to councillors about public delegations. Someone compiled the amount of time spent on public delegations at committee meetings between Nov. 2015 and Nov. 2016. The count excluded statutory public meetings which the city is required by law to hold to hear from the public, where no advance registration is required to speak.
Time spent hearing from and asking questions of delegations ranged from zero (no delegations at a particular meeting) to 180 minutes at the Sept. 12 Community & Corporate Services Committee.
That particular meeting included delegations on the financial impact of the proposed permanent wavebreak for LaSalle Park Marina, a $14 million project which would require public money. Given the long term impact and cost of this project, surely this is time well spent?
Average time for public delegations including questions was about 43 minutes per meeting, counting 25 meetings between Nov. 2015 and Nov. 2016. Seven hours are scheduled each month (excluding August) for each of two standing committees – Development & Infrastructure and Community & Corporate Services – representing 168 hours of scheduled meetings in a year (excluding Committee of the Whole workshops which typically do not permit delegations, and special budget meetings).
Thus, public delegations, including questions, amount to on average 11% of scheduled meeting time – 43 minutes average per 7-hour scheduled meeting. On several occasions, the blocks of time set aside for standing committee meetings have not been needed, or the meetings have finished earlier than scheduled. Thus, public delegations are not slowing down the business of the city. So what problem is cutting public input in half trying to solve?
Practice by Other Municipalities
Additional information provided to committee members also included a sampling of how other municipalities handle delegation times. Some allow 10 minutes, some 5; some do not permit a further opportunity to delegate at council. Burlington allows delegations at council, limited to five minutes and new information only (different from what was discussed at committee).
Oakville, Milton, Barrie and Thunder Bay provide 10 minutes at committee; Milton, like Burlington, allows 5 minutes at council. Oakville, Barrie and Thunder Bay don’t allow delegations at council.
Ottawa, London, Waterloo, Hamilton, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Kingston, St. Catharines and Cambridge allow 5 minutes at committee; of this group, only St. Catharines allows delegations to speak at council, with a five minute limit.
Burlington leads most municipalities in providing time to hear from the public; why would we want to follow other municipalities and regress to their level of input on public delegations?
In Burlington, decision-making flows first to a standing committee, then a recommendation from that committee goes to council several weeks later for a final vote. The bulk of discussion is expected to occur at the standing committee, thus extra time for public input is warranted (1o minutes at committee, versus 5 at council). Given that the public doesn’t know what recommendation will come out of committee until after committee votes, it is reasonable to allow an extra opportunity to speak at council to that recommendation. It is the last opportunity to influence the decision.
The Argument Made for Reducing to 5 Minutes
The argument has been made that the public has other opportunities to provide input: contacting their councillor or the mayor, attending a neighbourhood meeting (if one is held for a particular matter), speaking at committee and council (although now with less time proposed at committee).
However, a standing committee is the only opportunity to speak to all members of council at once, and not all matters go to a neighbourhood meeting (the Program and Accommodation Review cited above, for example. Though information sessions were held by the school board, they did not provide an opportunity for public questions or comments). Further, the first time members of the public hear about many proposed decisions is by reading the agendas for upcoming committee meetings.
In principle, though, just because the public has new ways to be involved in providing input is no argument to reduce existing opportunities. For example, most people contact me by email, but I don’t limit opportunities for people to use the telephone to reach me. An increasing number also contact me on social media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – but I haven’t limited email contact. Offering a diverse range of ways for the public to provide input is better, given that each resident will choose the manner that best suits them to provide input. Public input isn’t and shouldn’t be an either-or, zero-sum proposition.
The current 10 minutes for public delegations is working and doesn’t slow city business, so there is no need to change it and every reason to retain it.
For a community striving to be a leader in public engagement in government, cutting public input in half is anti-democratic and takes us backwards on our commitments to public involvement in city decisions. Our strategic plan includes a section on creating an ‘Engaging City” where “the city actively encourages and welcomes collaboration with residents and stakeholders in the decision-making process”. We need to walk the talk, and lead not follow other municipalities.
I personally have changed my mind and vote after getting new information from the public. More input leads to greater exchange of information which leads to better decisions. If presentations from local agencies, boards, commissions, other levels of staff and government warrant 10 minutes, so does public input. What these groups have to share with us is no more important that hearing from residents we were elected to serve and represent.
Retaining public input in decision-making is so important I will not support the procedural bylaw unless we retain 10 minutes public delegation time at committee, and give residents the same amount of time afforded to agencies, staff and government.
Concerned about the move to cut public input in half at standing committees? At council Nov. 28 I will be bringing a motion, seconded by Councillor Dennison, to retain public input at committee to 10 minutes. Share your views by registering as a delegation at council. Mon. Nov. 28, 6:30 pm, City Hall.
Agenda with report recommending changes to the procedure bylaw: C&CS Nov. 7, Item 4.2