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Bad precedent: special meeting for special interests



The mayor has called a special meeting of council, whose sole purpose is to allow council to be grilled by the VOTE group. It turns out the proposed "public" meeting to grill council at the Leisure Time Centre isn't legal under the Municipal Act. So to accommodate the group, Mayor Carrier has legalized it by making it a council meeting - albeit one whose agenda is set by Vote and allowing VOTE to moderate the proceedings.

I am not attending because I do not believe council should be at the beck and call of ANY interest group. I think this is highly inappropriate and a serious political mistake, not to mention the blow to the mayor's and council's credibility.

I posted the following as comments on my previous entry about this, but moved them here because I didn't want them to get lost under the main entry. I think this is important enough to deserve its own headline. I've expanded the comments somewhat here, as well.

On Wednesday morning, I received a call from the mayor informing me that - as I had questioned in my previous blog entry - the VOTE meeting actually constitutes a meeting of council under the Municipal Act. So it's illegal for council as a group to attend. Our clerk contacted our legal counsel and he agreed. I wonder why the mayor never asked the question (this time or last year).

Which means the previous VOTE meeting, held in 2007 and attended by most of council (but not myself or Dept. Mayor Cooper), was equally illegal under the Municipal Act. But the lack of legality isn't stopping out intrepid mayor from making this meeting work for VOTE. There's still a card up his sleeve: calling a special meeting of council, a power invested in him under the Procedural Bylaw.

The memo we received from the clerk states:

...I have confirmed that this gathering constitutes a meeting of Council pursuant to the Municipal Act, 2001. Case law defines a common test to determine if a gathering of members of Council constitutes a meeting pursuant to Section 238 of the Municipal Act, 2001. Our Municipal Solicitor, Mr. John Mascarin, has generally noted the three-part test as follows:
(i) whether councillors are invited to attend;
(ii) whether the matters discussed are matters which would ordinarily form the basis of council’s business; and
(iii) whether those matters are dealt with in such a way as to “move them materially along the way in the overall spectrum of a Council decision.”

Seems that no one, not even the mayor, informed the clerk of the meeting until early this week.

So if it's illegal, you'd think members of council would want to stay away to avoid breaking the law. But the mayor has instead called a special meeting council - at the Leisure Time Club, not town hall - to make sure the legalities are met and that VOTE's needs are fully accommodated. This sets a bad precedent: calling a special meeting to cater to an interest group instead of dealing with town business. The clerk continues:

For this meeting to continue, it must be called in accordance with our procedural by-law as a Special Meeting of Council. I have discussed this matter with His Worship Mayor Carrier, Municipal Solicitor Mr. John Mascarin, Aird & Berlis and V.O.T.E.. His Worship has agreed, in good faith, to declare the meeting scheduled for tomorrow evening as a Special Meeting of Council. An Agenda will be distributed later today, pursuant to our procedural by-law.

In "good faith"? Good faith for the taxpayers would have been to ask the question about legality first, before accepting the invitation.

The agenda for the special meeting arrived simultaneously and includes what looks suspiciously to me like the same agenda for the VOTE meeting:

INTERACTIVE SESSION WITH V.O.T.E. (7:10pm – 8:00pm)
(Moderated by V.O.T.E.)
Questions for Discussion:
1. Over the past year, Council has made a number of large financial commitments, for
example, the new library, and is in the process of considering additional items through
budget deliberations - a significant contribution to the YMCA expansion, Downtown
revitalization, and now potentially the Heritage Park overhaul including a new Wellness
Centre. In these uncertain economic times, does the Town have the resources to pay for
these ventures? What impact are these projects going to have on our taxes?

2. What does Council see as the three most pressing issues facing the community as we go
forward, and what is Council’s plan to address them?

5. PUBLIC DISCUSSION
(Moderated by V.O.T.E.)

Public Question & Answer Session (parameters to be defined) (8:00pm – 8:55pm)

Closing Remarks (8:55pm – 9:00pm)

I am unaware of any section in the Procedural Bylaw, let alone the Municipal Act, that allows an outsider - agency or individual - to moderate a council meeting. To me that is essentially handing the meeting over to an unelected agency. Even if the mayor remains the nominal chair of the meeting, VOTE calls the shots here.

Nor am I aware of anything in either law that allows a special interest group to set a council agenda and determine who has the right to speak, the order of the speakers or moderate the responses of council. Yet the agenda is clearly VOTE's agenda, with the niceties of our town procedures wrapped around it to make it legal.

I also believe it is a precedent that a delegation - and that's what they are in a council meeting - to question members of council, especially to demand council justify its decisions. The normal process is that council asks questions of a delegation, not the other way around. Not to mention a precedent to have council have to explain and justify itself to any special interest group in a public meeting. And then the special interest group even gets to moderate the "public" question-and-answer session!

Who defines the "parameters" for the "public" session? Who makes the closing remarks? It doesn't say, but I suspect the moderators do. And I say "public" guardedly in quotations because my personal feeling is that the moderators will favour their own members to do pre-determined questioning. But I say again: it's a precedent to have members of the public question council at a council meeting. In future every interest group will have the right to demand the same privilege that the mayor accorded VOTE.

Too many bad precedents being set in one meeting.

And who will be paying for any staff required to attend - at the very least, the clerk will be there. Will VOTE repay the town for the staff costs, or will the town be subsidizing VOTE by picking up the tab? I believe you, the taxpayers, are paying for staff who have to attend the VOTE meeting. I believe that again sets a precedent and should be a budget issue debated by all of council, not an arbitrary decision made by the mayor. Arbitrary is the watchword for this term, it seems.

I will still not be attending, even though it has been called as a council meeting. I consider it highly inappropriate - bordering on immoral and indecent - to call a special meeting of council to accommodate the demands of any special interest group. Council should not be at the beck and call of any group, nor should any group be allowed to moderate a meeting or set the agenda. Attending this meeting gives credibility to an already bad process, and acquiesces to what I see as a seriously bad error in judgment.

If we do it for one group, we are honour-bound to do it for every group that demands it. Otherwise we would be seen by the public as overtly partisan, and probably worse - as mere lackeys of the group that got the special attention and privileges. Kids' soccer clubs, swim teams, developers' groups, charities, service clubs, business organizations - they all now have the right to demand equal treatment: a special meeting to demand council justify its decisions. To say no to any of them will be to admit we are not being democratic, but merely partisan.

I can hardly wait to see how the mayor responds when PGIB demands the same privileges accorded to VOTE.

~~~~~

There was a story on the Enterprise-Bulletinwebsite last evening:

Carrier explained the decision to formalize the meeting as a committee of the whole meeting was to protect the integrity of council.

“Under the Municipal Act, according to our solicitor, and our clerk agrees, the format of the meeting is such that we are sitting collectively as a council or at least a quorum. Since I’m listening to the opinions of my colleagues, that makes it a debate and even though we’re not making a decision, it could affect the decision-making at a council meeting in the future. That makes it really a committee of the whole meeting.”

Huh? How does pandering to the needs of any special interest group "protect the integrity of council"? Quite the opposite, I suggest. What this does is deal a serious blow to council's integrity and raises the question about who runs the town - or perhaps it cements the answer because many people already think they know and here's the proof.





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Ian Chadwick
Nov 27 2008 07:36 AM
This is from the VOTE website, leaving no doubt who is in charge here:

V.O.T.E. Collingwood is pleased to present:

An Evening with “COLLINGWOOD COUNCIL”

Thursday November 27th, 2008
7:00 to 9:00pm
Leisure Time Club
100 Minnesota Street, Collingwood

This marks the halfway point of our Municipal Council’s four year term. Council Members will be asked to comment on:
• The pressing issues facing the Municipality.
• Plans for “spending” and “taxation.”
• Open Q & A session to follow.

This evening promises to be a very informative event and is open to anyone interested in attending.

Admission is free.

Nice of them not to charge admission for a "public" meeting - especially one that's now a council meeting!
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Ian Chadwick
Nov 28 2008 05:52 PM
Rick Crouch, one of VOTE's execs, has taken a swipe at my non-attendance last night. I thought it valuable to reply to some of his comments. On his blog, he writes:

I believe that all of us have "special interests." Between his love of animals, tequila and numerous other interests, Councillor Chadwick is no exception.

Thank you, Rick, and I respect you and your fellow members for the same reason: your individuality. However, there is an enormous difference between individuals and groups. Groups lobby for their agendas and have specific goals and policies. I actually believe that citizens' and ratepayers' groups are valuable assets in the community. I feel VOTE's silence during the numerous abuses and serious errors in judgment this term has defined the partisan nature of the group, however.

It's like party politics. VOTE has chosen sides. Would you expect the Conservative candidate during an election to attend a meeting to explain herself to a meeting of Liberals? The same applies here.

As far as Council's participation in a meeting called by V.O.T.E.? First it is a meeting open to the public, free of charge to anyone wishing to attend.

As are council meetings, our coffee with council open house meetings, and anyone who walks into my store to discuss politics (hardly a day goes by without several people doing so). When council holds a 'town hall' or 'coffee with council' meeting, it is neutral. When VOTE holds one, it is not. VOTE brings a very partisan bias with it and pretending it doesn't is disingenuous.

...two pre-determined questions were submitted in advance to the members of Council so as to not blind-side anyone. The most siginifcant of the two dealt with spending and taxation, topics not of a "special interest" nature nor ones of specific interest just to members of V.O.T.E.

I would argue that VOTE has specific goals and intentions with regard to these issues. You wouldn't be much of a "voice" for anyone if you didn't. But the issue wasn't whether your questions were good or bad, but rather whether I felt it was my responsibility to dance to VOTE's tune. I didn't. Calling it a special meeting of council was bureaucratic sleight-of-hand -unethical in my perspective - but doesn't change the nature of the meeting.

Not withstanding all of the procedural arguements (sic) one might engage or hide behind to defend not participating in a meeting such as this, being in public office brings with it certain obligations.

Nowhere in the laws and even the principles that govern our municipal government, much less our democracy in general, is anyone on council I obligated to attend a meeting at any group's beck and call, nor are we obligated to answer your questions. We are responsible to the voters at large, but not to any group, especially one so obviously biased.

Talk to me as an individual, even invite me alone to meet with you.. But as a council: there is no such obligation and I feel it demeans council to collectively acquiesce to attend ANY interest group's meeting.

...I for one would feel a certain degree of obligation to meet with my constituents regardless of the forum. If that meant meeting with every group in Town for some purposeful dialogue to better our community, so-be-it.

Again, there's a huge difference between attending a meeting as individuals and doing so as a council. I would meet with your or any of your members to discuss my perspective on issues, as I would happily meet with any group or organization - but as an individual. But I do not feel it appropriate to do so as a council.

Each and everyone of us contributes to the renumeration of our municipal officials. As such, should false allegations of having a "special interest" absolve anyone from being held accountable to the people they were elected to serve?

Well, first of all: accountability - often promised by this council in the election, but rarely proferred. VOTE has been silent on every single instance of lack of accountability this term. Silence is acquiesence, Rick. So VOTE has defined itself as partisan by accepting those abuses and the lack of accountability this term (for example, where was VOTE when I was forced to file a Freedom of Information request to get the legal costs for the Admiral Collingwood debacle? Where was VOTE during the email spying scandal? Where was VOTE during the debate over the excessive legal costs for the education development charges? The list of issues is very long... and VOTE's list of responses isn't even a single line.).

Neither I nor anyone at council has an obligation to any partisan organization. I would not expect council to collectively attend a meeting of developers looking for approvals. The same principle applies here. I believe those who attended last night felt an obligation TO YOUR GROUP, not to the community as a whole. I think it was a mistake to do so as a council.
Ian:

I am still astounded that Steven Carrier would call a Special Meeting at 3 pm on monday. He doesn't hear well that some Councillors work and have difficulty arranging for a mid afternoon meeting. Suggest you object strongly and/or miss the meeting.

The subject is a rehashed five year old development permit that should be approved at a regular meeting. If managed, staff should comment on any new points rather than expect Councillors to go over the entire document. Councillors are not paid enough to check up on all the details of a development permit. The administration should screen these permits and fit any comment and decision decision into a regular meeting.

Also, calling for another in-camera session should be questioned. Council should be setting policy and not getting into administration detail. You might check out if the Mayor and other Councillors have read the Ontario Ombudman's Sunshine booklet covering illegal in-camera sessions.

Cheers

Dick hill

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