Proxy voting

No doubt many Ontarians utilized the recent Civic Holiday weekend as intended, to reflect on and give thanks for municipal government and its impact on our lives.

What’s that? You spent it on your deck quaffing cold beverages and social-distancing socializing with friends? Not to worry, it’s my job to think about such things so you don’t have to, sort of by proxy.

If you feel that’s not likely a useful way for you to crystalize your thoughts on matters municipal, that’s because doing anything by proxy, such as voting, while occasionally helpful, has its limitations.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, making in-person meetings too risky, local councils and the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs reacted swiftly to allow the wheels of local democracy to keep turning.

Meetings went remote, using video or teleconference technology, with the province passing emergency legislation to allow full participation by councillors from wherever they could beam in.

It’s worked well enough for the most part, although not all councillors seem equally adept with the technology and some are no doubt limited by the connectivity in their area.

It’s kinda surreal, while observing Zoom sessions, to see individuals go silent, or sometimes disappear altogether. While sometimes able to reconnect, councils, after a few fruitless “Are you still there?”  pleas, have generally adopted a “Well, we still have a quorum” approach, and carry on.

What else can you do?

Good on all our local councils for finding ways to keep doing their community’s business, while allowing for as much public participation as possible under trying conditions.

With the province’s emergency order lifted, some councils are returning to in-person meetings. However, these gatherings, like the one held at the PMD arena in Mapleton last Thursday, must be held under modified conditions to accommodate physical distancing and masking requirements. In terms of acoustics and interaction, it’s not ideal.

That’s why it was a good move on the province’s part to allow municipalities to adopt their procedural bylaws to maintain the option to meet remotely. Most prognosticators put us a long way from the end of this pandemic and keeping options open seems wise.

Less sage, however, was a decision to include granting council members the ability to vote via proxy in new legislation aimed at allowing some extraordinary measures to continue beyond the defunct emergency declaration.

While clearly aimed at allowing councils every possible option to keep functioning in an emergency, this move seems ill thought out.

When proxy voting came up at a recent Wellington North meeting, two council members and the clerk voiced strong objections to the idea, which will be part of a future discussion amongst that group.

While proxy voting might suffice for a community group’s annual general meeting, where voting in a well-known slate of officers is often the biggest item on the agenda, it has no place at the municipal council table, or indeed any level of government dealing with taxpayers’ funds and well-being.

Allowing councillors to vote at a meeting they don’t attend either in-person or online would necessitate their making up their mind beforehand, possibly without benefit of key arguments and information presented at the meeting at which the vote is held.

Councillors need to be fully informed on the issues they are charged with deciding.

While one hopes such a privilege wouldn’t be abused, proxy voting raises the spectre of a councillor enjoying a vacation while missing a meeting they are paid to attend, without losing the privilege of casting their vote.

Bill 127, which includes the proxy voting provision, while not finally approved, appears certain to pass in a majority government situation. While the bill known as the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, contains some useful provisions, proxy voting isn’t one of them.

Councils across the province would be wise to dismiss it.