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Public input to be cut in half; My Take: it’s anti-democratic. Council vote Nov. 28

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Reducing public delegations to 5 minutes is a step in the wrong direction.

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.

My Take:

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.

Your Take:

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.

Resources:

Agenda with report recommending changes to the procedure bylaw: C&CS Nov. 7, Item 4.2

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I was inspired to seek public office because I believe, like so many of you, “I can do something about that” on the issues we face. As councilor, my role is to take a stand on what’s best for residents and go to bat for it. Pushback is inevitable from those who don’t have the community’s interests at heart. I will stand with you and for you, to achieve the best interests of our city, without caving to unacceptable compromise in the name of consensus.

9 Comments

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  1. Marianne I agree with you that 10 minutes is the right amount of time one should be allowed to delegate. The problem is when a group of folks get up and all talk about the same thing. Council should be allowed to use discretion to cut the time down when discussing minor issues and only when faced with a room full of delegates. Also council appears to be more than happy to extend the amount of time given to a delegate by simply asking them if they have anything else to add? Which extends the speaking time. Usually this is done when someone is saying something a Councillor likes. Otherwise they say your time is up. The process also has to be user friendly or normal people won’t come and delegate if they have to wait for hours. One evening I had to listen to one speaker after another for hours talking about swans before my agenda came up. This process should not abused, if so enjoy your 5 minutes.

  2. Slightly worried that a huge number of delegations on Nov 28th may prove the point of those who say delegations bog down the process and should be limited! That said I wholeheartedly agree that this move is anti democratic; it is naive and dangerous to assume that staff are ‘experts’ and their recommendations should be heeded with no public input as an earlier commenter has suggested. It is just about impossible to relay a complex message in 5 minutes (10 minutes is hard enough).

  3. I think we need to explore the purpose and benefit of public input at standing committees. (And as an aside, when I hear that a politician is seeking public input, two things come to mind: a) they are bereft of their own ideas and b) they are looking for someone to blame when the decision goes badly). We pay staff who are experts in their field good money to present recommendations to council. We can only presume that they have looked at the issue from multiple views and are making a recommendation that is in the best interests of the city over all.

    Perhaps we allow public input to permit those who feel strongly on an issue to vent and this may be a good way to do that. However as far as these public inputs swaying decisions, how do you know that those presenting represent the majority view? It has been shown that those who have strong concerns are more likely to voice them than the vast major who sit quietly and are willing to accept the recommendations as presented.

    The issue of councillor workload periodically rears its head along with its corollary – the number of councillors. So anything that makes more efficient use of your time is a real benefit. The public has ample alternative ways of providing input and counselors can use those same alternatives to gauge the pulse of their constituents.

    • The purpose is called participatory democracy. The benefit is citizen participation in making decisions. You cheapen it by calling it venting – what do you know?.

      You don’t sound like you have ever done any of this, or know anything about the real thing.

      You don’t trust politicians, but somehow trust the “expert” staff to do the best of everything with no citizen opinions. Another measure of your apparent ignorance of things that go on at city hall, and how things really work.

      The vast majority don’t really know what is happening as they are too busy. So what if others choose to speak up? How do you know they don’t speak for the many? The politicians only hear those that speak, so you want no one to speak?

      Councilors chose the job, so if the work is too much, quit.

      If you think there are ample alternative ways to provide input then this view is another indicator of your ignorance of how things work. I know councilors that have their own agenda and talking to them alone casually, just gets grounded.

      You got to get in on the formal decision-making process and that’s at Council. Citizens need the time of 10 minutes at risk.

  4. Hi Marianne, I wish I could put my name down, but I am not free Monday evenings. Does that mean I don’t have a voice, or will this note suffice?
    When there is so much to do at the City level, it astounds me that so much time and energy goes into discussing “five/ten” minutes. What is wrong here? Quite frankly, I do not want to know what other cities are doing (although I do thank you for the detail – also time consuming). I want Burlington to be a leader, not a follower. We should continue to give the taxpayers their 10 minutes, if they so desire. We have the City and Police Depts. asking constantly for help/input. Why waste more tax paying dollars advertising this, if it is not really appreciated. What is the reason council wants to make this change? Was there a stampede of people showing up at city hall? If this has happened, on occasion, it is quite simple to announce at the onset of any meeting that “for this particular meeting” the city is limiting public input to five minutes… does this really have to be discussed… Does council not recognize that it is an effort for the average person to pluck up the courage to stand up and speak if they don’t do that for a living. Five minutes just gives us time to catch our breath. You should be encouraging people, not scaring them off.
    Just out of interest, what happens to one if they exceed their allocated time?
    Thank you for bringing this and other issues to our attention.
    Mozelle.

  5. Marianne, I totally agree with you. In Burlington, we have so few people actually getting up and providing input on issues that we need to do all we can to promote and encourage engagement. I really don’t care about the Practices by Other Municipalities, Burlington is unique, leave the 10 minute practice along. This could be regrettable slide to zero.

  6. Marianne, i totally agree with you here. In Burlington, we have so few people actually getting up and providing input on issues that we need to do all we can to promote and encourage engagement. This moves us in the opposite direction.

    The issues that Council is faced with in managing the City’s future direction are increasing in complexity and nuance. Governing is going to be more and more difficult, and citizens are devoting their time and energy to help you (Council) navigate the challenges of modern life in the city. I am certain that you will be able to make better decisions if the expertise of residents, as well as the expertise of staff & local agencies are fully considered. That means giving everyone enough time to state their case and present that expertise to Council committees.

  7. I have sat through a few Council meetings when residents delegate and for the most part I found them to be very unsettling. Some Councillors treat delegations with such disdain and on more than one occasion I had wanted to stand up and ask if the Councillor would like to be treated in that way.

    Five (5) minutes or Ten (10) minutes what difference does it make. Many things have already been decided before the meeting takes place. Smoke and Mirrors – public forums are a waste of time in my opinion.

  8. Looks like Joe/Jane public’s only input is at election time. Let’s remember those who voted to silence us and vote to silence them. Signing up to speak as a delegate on November 28 is quite simple. I hope many of you do. Let’s say no to government of the committee, by the committee, for the committee.

What's your take?