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Not attending the VOTE meeting

When Collingwood Connection reporter John Edwards called to ask me why I wasn't going to attend the planned VOTE meeting this week, I was a little bemused. I had not responded to the request to attend and was still considering my reply. But Edwards said that VOTE treasurer Rick Crouch had told him I had replied that I wasn't attending. Well, that isn't correct: he assumed I wasn't going to attend. Up until that point, I wasn't 100% sure how to respond, but that cemented it for me.

The story in this week's Connection says:

Chadwick considers VOTE a special interest group and doesn't feel he has any obligation to attend.

Chadwick feels the meeting will be very partisan. Chadwick said he will talk to any member of VOTE or exchange e-mails, but he doesn't plan on attending the meeting.

"They do it as a special interest group," he said.

I don't think council has an obligation to collectively explain itself and justify our actions to any outside, special interest group. My belief is that council already explains itself, both at council meetings and in our 'Coffee with Council' informal sessions. I do not think it is a proper role for council as a group to attend these meetings to discuss - or rationalize -municipal business. That's what our council meetings are for.

Under the Municipal Act, this may even be argued to constitute a meeting of council. As the Sunshine Law handbookstates:

What constitutes a “meeting”?
Not every gathering is a “meeting” subject to the legislation.

The Municipal Act, 2001, in section 238(1), provides that a “meeting” means any “regular, special or other meeting of a council, of a local board or of a committee of either of them.” The Act does not provide guidance on how to determine which gatherings are “meetings.”

Based on a careful review of court decisions and the principles that inform the open meeting requirements, the Ombudsman
has developed the following guideline for determining whether a gathering is a “meeting” subject to the legislation: Members of council or a committee must come together for the purpose of exercising the power or authority of the council or committee or for the purpose of doing the groundwork necessary to exercise that power or authority.

I would argue that there is little substantive difference between hearing a delegation from a group at council and making a decision based on the comments presented, and hearing that same group in another venue and later making similar decisions based on comments heard at the meeting.

On the other hand, I have no issues with the mayor being asked to attend by himself, answer questions and explain (from his perspective) council's decisions. That is, after all, one of the roles of the mayor: to be the spokesperson.

But you have to ask yourself: if council does it for this group, is council not setting the precedent to do the same for all groups? If we refuse, are we not being undemocratic? What if an arts group demands council attend a meeting to explain its decisions on cultural funding? Or a group of developers demands council attend its meeting to justify decisions on development and growth? Or the BIA demands council attend its meeting to explain decisions about the proposed downtown revitalization plan? Or a swim club demands council attend one of its meetings to discuss the pool?

If we refuse to attend these meetings, council is making it very clear that attending a specific one is a very partisan decision. Calling them "public" meetings does not disguise the special interest nature of the group.

I think it highly inappropriate for council to be at the beck and call of any special interest group, even those with which I sympathize. For example, I would resist attending a similar group meeting called by the local humane society, even though I am a strong supporter of their efforts.

I'm sure there are those at the table who feel beholden to VOTE for helping get them elected in 2006. I'm equally sure most of these members will be in attendance to repay the favour. But that again is partisan, not neutral, and it is certainly not appropriate for the entire council to attend simply because VOTE requests it of us.

Our council meets are open to the public, and anyone can attend; anyone can speak to members of council before or after the meeting; anyone can request to make a delegation and present concerns and issues to council as a whole. I make myself available to anyone who writes, calls, emails or comes into my store to discuss issues. I'm sure other members of council are similarly accessible. Why would any of us feel the need to justify ourselves collectively to this group?

The Connection story goes on:

Chadwick also criticized vote for not being as involved in the political scene over the past two years as they were in the election.

The ratepayers group was involved in the 2006 municipal election and voiced their disapproval with the council, which was led by then-Mayor Terry Geddes. The group was also vocal against the Admiral Collingwood project at the corner of Hume and Hurontario Streets.

"They had problems with the last council, but have remained silent when more egregious issues have raised their head in this council," he said.

Chadwick cited the e-mail audit - which occurred early in 2007 - as an example.

Last term, VOTE was loudly and frequently critical of council, especially the former mayor, and published numerous "press releases" criticizing council's decisions, as well as holding meetings in which council was sternly chastised. While I often disagreed with their perspective, I actually didn't mind having a watchdog group outside the media keeping tabs on council's activities and decisions. That helps keep council focused and cognizant of community opinion.

This term, the group has been eerily silent despite abuse after egregious abuse. That in itself defines the partisanship, and makes it clear to non-members that their concerns lie not with the general state of municipal affairs, but rather with protecting their Chosen Few at the table. If the group was really the "voices of the electorate" they would have raised their voices a dozen times or more in angry protest this term. But they have remained steadfastly mute in the face of these issues.

I think that's made even more clear in the following comments from the article:

Karen Poshtar, chair of VOTE, said they are a volunteer group and don't have the volunteers to be as active and also, she doesn't see any problems with how this council is doing business.

"I think council has been very open," (s)he said. "That's what it was, we were concerned with things that were happening and going against the rules," she said.

No problems? Very open? I could list numerous instances of problems and inappropriate secrecy - and they've all been well-reported in the media, from the email spying in late 2006 to the in camera discussions over education development charges to recent, ongoing battle over the ethanol plant. Surely VOTE is not so short of supporters that it could not have made ONE comment about any of these problematic but important issues in the last two years. Have all its members been living in a bubble these last two years and not had contact with our municipal matters and so are unaware of these problems, or is Ms. Poshtar making a highly partisan, subjective statement on behalf of her organization? I suggest the latter.

Silence means acquiescence. As such, I don't feel any responsibility to attend their meeting and answer to them, because it is clearly a partisan event. I will continue to do my job as elected representative as best I can without dancing to their tune.

Ian Chadwick
Nov 24 2008 06:58 AM
An interesting comment about this story over on RadiofreeCollingwood this morning. The writer notes,

As for VOTE chair Karen Poshter’s comments that, “I think council has been very open,” how would they know? As I understand it, VOTE hasn’t been showing up to the council meetings, certainly not to the same extent they were during the previous term.

Good point. Where VOTE had someone in the audience for most of the meetings of the last year or two of the previous council, they're as scarce as hen's teeth this council. Not that they have to be there in person: they can watch it on TV, at home. But evidently - based on Ms. Poshtar's comment about it being an open council - they don't do that either.

Local media who attend these meetings have commented on the absence of VOTE this term many times - the MIA ratepayers' group.

The writer at RFC also comments that...

Councillor Chadwick should go, and put the question to VOTE to justify their stance - not the other way around.

Worth considering. However, I feel that would give the group a sense of legitimacy and credibility they have, in my mind, given up in their overt partisanship. I think someone on council has to stand up and say that - by not attending. I don't think this is a forum for me or anyone on council to debate VOTE's absence, their refusal to comment on abuses, or their stance on issues. I'm hoping my silence will speak more loudly than words.
I strongly support your decision not to attend the VOTE meeting as participation as a 'Council' is most undemocrqtic. The Sunshine booklet on the legal requirements on Council openess and definition of a meeting explains that all meetings must be public and advertised as such.

Councillors are chosen to serve all Collingwood residents and not pander to special interest groups such as VOTE.

Dick Hill
Ian Chadwick
Nov 26 2008 11:32 AM
This comment was updated and moved to its own blog entry.
Ian Chadwick
Nov 26 2008 07:00 PM
This comment was updated and moved to its own blog entry.

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