County rejects motions on meeting earlier, use of consent agenda

GUELPH – Motions to start meetings earlier and switch to a consent agenda format were defeated by Wellington County council on Oct. 31.

Councillor Diane Ballantyne introduced two notices of motion on Sept. 26 relating to meeting procedure.

One called for the procedural bylaw to be amended to have county council sessions start at 9am instead of 10am.

Another motion would have seen council adopt the “consent agenda” format for council meetings beginning in January. A consent agenda groups routine business and reports into one agenda item, which can be approved simultaneously, rather than filing motions on each item separately.

Ballantyne told council members the consent agenda is “a mechanism to make the meetings more efficient.

“The idea is reports that are for information only will be part of the agenda vote at the beginning. Any councillor can pull out anything that is in the consent agenda to speak to and have more discussion about,” she said.

“It’s not to reduce the conversation, it’s just when there isn’t conversation and it’s just for reading purposes then we’ll move along more quickly and we’ll be able to focus our discussions on the motions that actually we need to debate.”

Wellington North Mayor Andy Lennox said he was initially receptive to the idea of a consent agenda since his own council uses one.

However, he pointed out, “When we adopted the consent agenda we did it as part of a much larger revamp of our agenda process. We eliminated standing committees for the most part and we made a decision to bring decisions directly to council.”

Lennox said the idea of eliminating the committees was to “speed up the process” but council also wanted to ensure debate did occur in the public forum.

“Similar to here at the county, there’s very little public participation in our committees … so we wanted to bring more of the discussion, more of the debate into the public view.”

However, he said, councillors were concerned “we’d have such a voluminous council agenda that we’d never get through it,” so council looked for ways to make it go faster, leading to the adoption of the consent agenda process.

“I guess when I look at the proposal on the floor here today I have concerns,” Lennox stated.

“One of the concerns is we’re not changing the structure beyond just adopting the consent agenda, and there’s the possibility that we could actually reduce the amount of discussion. You could argue that it might eliminate the need for each chair to come up and give a report.”

He noted chairs’ reports and questions they generate at county council meetings provide “an opportunity to paraphrase or discuss what happens at the committee, which we don’t get any other way.”

Lennox continued, “To just simply insert a consent agenda, which in some ways we already use by adopting each committee meeting in one motion or our bylaws in one motion; to further reduce that, my concern is … our accessibly and transparency of our decision making could be compromised.”

Councillor Mary Lloyd noted agendas and committee reports aren’t provided to the public attending council meetings.

“Unless they are savvy and on their computers following along with us they don’t really know what it is that we’re talking about and all of a sudden we’ve spent millions of dollars, tax dollars, in the quick motion of you approve everything and it’s done,” said Lloyd, who  favours more transparency and fears a consent process could actually hinder that.

“I would love to see this council chambers being livestreamed and out to the public and if we move to the consent agenda, it’s really hard for somebody in the public to understand that we’ve spent a lot of money fixing a road, or helping the seniors or whatever it is we’re doing. It just doesn’t give a full picture.”

Councillor Jeff Duncan noted background material distributed to councillors by Ballantyne referenced “valuing our time.

“Our time is valued,” said Duncan, who pointed out ward councillors’ $41,000 annual base pay is “more than twice as much as our local counterparts. It’s a third of the salary an MPP makes. I think it’s up to us, as a local representative, it’s on us to be able to attend the nine meetings county council holds.”

Duncan continued, “My own personal take on it is, by trying to make it more efficient you’re really trying to make it shorter and I don’t think we have any kind of a mandate from the public to make meetings shorter.”

Councillor Gregg Davidson said the only streamlining impact a consent agenda could have on meeting efficiency would be the elimination of committee chair reports.

“If we start deleting that we’re really deleting our purposes in being here,” said Davidson. “I don’t see any purpose in the consent agenda for this council.”

Councillor Don McKay, who sits on some boards and committees that use the consent agenda format, said he views the matter differently.

“If an item needs to be voted on, needs discussion, its pulled out of the consent agenda,” he said.

“What the consent agenda does is that things that don’t need to be voted on, but they are for information, it’s put there and people have it.”

McKay argued agendas and reports are posted on the county website “well ahead of time.

“So the public does have an opportunity to look at it and notify individuals and if they have concerns that something is going to be voted on they can come as delegations to the council and to the committees,” stated McKay, adding the consent agenda “does help.

“We spend more time and effort on the issues that really need to be discussed and debated as opposed to having those rushed through because we have a lot of business,” he explained.

McKay suggested the idea be referred to staff to investigate how it could work for the county.

Ballantyne responded that the consent agenda format would only eliminate the verbal reports from committee meetings which don’t generate any motions to vote on.

“The point is though, when the committee reports are given, what consent agendas would help us do is have much more laser-focus on the motions that are in the reports,” she stated. “Sometimes a committee report doesn’t have anything in it that would need to be voted on.

“My perception is that there isn’t always as much fulsome discussion regarding what we are voting on and this could encourage more public awareness about what we’re voting on and what we’re passing,” Ballantyne continued.

“My intention is not to shorten the meetings. It’s to create richer transparency for the public to see what it is that we are actually voting on.” However, she said, “I understand that doesn’t appear to be the will of the horseshoe and I respect that.”

The motion was defeated with only Ballantyne and McKay voting in favour.

Ballantyne called the motion to move the meeting time to 9am “fairly self explanatory.

“It’s a time change to dovetail with the start of the traditional business day. I’ve canvassed the majority of  people around the horseshoe that didn’t have any objection to that and felt that staring at nine would be a worthwhile effort,” she stated.

Councillor James Seeley said the time when councillors arrive, between 9 and 10am, is “a huge asset to myself and I believe most councillors” for consulting  with staff and other councillors.

“By moving the council meeting to nine it would put me in the situation where I would not be able to attend the meeting at the very beginning. I mean I could be here within half an hour, but I don’t believe we should be adjusting time for one individual,” said Seeley

“I’m struggling a little bit,  councillor Ballantyne, with your rationale for these last two motions. When you placed them on the floor last council meeting you made reference to the consent agenda because you had commitments in the afternoon and that was the main reason, as well as this motion … now you’re saying ‘dovetailing with the business day.’”

Seeley continued, “We need to know the true rationale for these motions. Is this to align with the business day or is it a personal issue and … have you optioned all the possibilities to change your schedule at work.

“I’m a full-time employee and I make a lot of sacrifices to make my meetings. And I made that commitment when I put my name on the ballot,” Seeley stated.

Bridge noted that both he and Lennox travel an hour to the meetings. He also said he tries to arrive an hour early and would need to be leave home at 7am in order to do so if the meeting were moved up an hour.

“In the wintertime we have some tricky drives to begin with,” he pointed out.

“I did sign up knowing when the times were … so I have a hard time changing the time … I mean I don’t mind being here all afternoon if we have to be …  As someone else pointed out, we’re making good dollars to be here and I think it’s important that we’re here.”

Councillor Earl Campbell said he is among those who told Ballantyne he had no problem with the time change.

“But having said that, I have to support councillor Bridge and councillor Seely. We ran knowing what the schedule was so, I mean, if we can come to a consensus … I’m okay with it. But I think if we have any dissenting votes I think that they need to be supported because that’s the playground that we all signed up for,” said Campbell.

Ballantyne said, “I fully understand, and actually support what councillor Campbell has said, so I withdraw the motion because it’s clear that there is some significant resistance to that and, yeah, we absolutely all signed up for a 10 o’clock start.”

She continued, “While I’m fully able and enabled by my employer, to answer your question councillor Seeley, to attend the meeting from 10 until whenever it goes to, coming from an outside perspective I just thought that there might be a potential to create an early start that might actually have us move on and staff also move on with their day.”

After Warden Kelly Linton ruled the motion could not be withdrawn as it had already been seconded, it was defeated with only Ballantyne in favour.

A third motion from Ballantyne, to end the purchase of single-use plastics for use in county staff and councillor spaces, was defeated. Though numerous councillors spoke in favour of the motion in principle, the majority felt further clarification and investigation was required.

A motion to refer the question to staff for further study was approved unanimously.