A Saanich councillor who tried to fasttrack a motion to have council meetings end by 11 p.m. at the latest hit a speed bump on Monday night.
A motion by Coun. Judy Brownoff for a defined end time of 10 p.m. for Saanich council meetings was not adopted. The issue was instead referred — after about a 30-minute discussion — to Saanich staff as part of a larger months-long review of council’s procedure bylaw, a delay Brownoff was trying to avoid.
“I’m disappointed in that it’s now tied to the bigger reivew,” said Brownoff, suggesting the draft won’t likely come back to council following a public process until probably April. Brownoff’s motion was to look at amending rules so all council meetings adjourn by 10 p.m. unless there’s a two-thirds vote in favour of extending it to no later than 11 p.m. It was based on a similar procedure in Vancouver.
In either scenario, the chairperson would declare a date and time for remaining items to be addressed.
“I have received many complaints over the length of our meetings from residents who feel their items came so late [on the agenda], they feel the issue was really not well debated by council,” said Brownoff. “We need to establish an end time for our meetings so that our public who want to speak to us have an opportunity.”
Brownoff said it’s councillors, not the public, who hold up meetings — either talking too long or asking questions of each other and staff that could be asked before the meeting.
Coun. Nathalie Chambers, who as a farmer rises at 4 a.m., said she hears the same complaints from residents about the lateness of meetings.
“Haggard councillors and staff and a sleepy CAO making million-dollar decisions, hundred-year decisions at late hours is bad PR and optics,” said Chambers. “Democracy after 10 p.m. may be seen as undemocratic, as not everyone who needs to be there can reasonably make it.”
Coun. Rebecca Mersereau, who suggested referring the issue to staff for consideration as part of the procedure bylaw review, said she agrees with concerns about good governance but is not comfortable “cherry picking” this particular issue without exploring all the options.
More frequent council meetings, earlier start times, holding in-camera meetings after rather than before council meetings and better preparation before council meetings are all ideas being discussed.
“There’s a range of solutions we should be looking at in this process,” said Mersereau. “I’m not surprised we’ve had late meetings. I think that’s to be expected of a new council and a new council with so many new members. I do expect that trend to go down over time as we get up to speed on more background information.”
Coun. Zac de Vries said the fact this council has put in more hours than the last two is “something we can be proud of.”
Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes supported referring the motion to staff, pointing to a controversial public hearing for a rezoning in Cadboro Bay on June 18 that stretched over six hours until 1:40 a.m. Acting Mayor Colin Plant ordered pizza at 11:15 p.m., paying about $100 out of his own pocket.
“That last public hearing where we call it the pizzagate was an amazing public hearing,” said Haynes. “It wasn’t staff or council delaying, it was number of public who wanted to speak to the issue.
“We have a dual conflict that we want to end our meetings early, but we want to hear from all the residents. This all has to be balanced.”
The staff review of council’s procedure bylaw is expected to take at least three months — mostly because after months of requests, it has yet to receive input from six of nine councillors — and be followed by a public process.
Plant, who supported referring the motion, said he hasn’t heard complaints from many residents about late-night meetings, adding public input has changed the length of meetings.
“It’s the low-hanging fruit in the media, in my opinion, to say it’s the pontification of councillors — which is happening this very second, so I acknowledge that … ”
As an interim measure, Mersereau said, the chairperson can defer issues to another meeting.
Plant also said he will consider asking for a vote on an adjournment if a council meeting runs past 11 p.m. or midnight.