CommunityCouncilTop Story

Keeping the status quo

By Craig Westcott/September 23, 2022

Paradise council said no Tuesday to any notion of holding public committee-of-the-whole meetings, but not without opposition from one councillor and second guessing by another.

The question of whether to go back to holding committee-of-the-whole meetings – essentially full sessions of council and staff but without the usual votes on motions – was put in the hands of senior staff for review. Paradise council had long held such meetings, but in private, until the last term of council, when it opted to scrap the sessions and leave the private meetings to council’s various committees.

On Tuesday, Administration and Corporate Services Committee chairperson Elizabeth Laurie brought forth the recommendation to keep things as they are based on a report by chief administrative officer Lisa Niblock.

Councillor Glen Carew sounded resigned to Niblock’s findings but made one last effort to change his colleagues’ minds anyway.

“I guess this is my last opportunity here to formally address council and residents about my feelings regarding committee Terms of reference and the committee-of-the-whole,” said Carew.

It was Carew who raised the issue last spring when staff suddenly limited the attendance of councillors at committee meetings to which they were not members. That decision was made to protect council from running afoul of a clause in the Municipalities Act that stipulates if more than three councillors meet together, they have enough quorum to take on the decision-making powers of a full council.

That led Carew, who liked attending all committee meetings, not just those of the two committees he serves on, to suggest that council go back to holding committee-of-the-whole meetings, only this time in public. It was that request that led council to ask Niblock and her staff to research the issue and come back with a report. And it was the recommendation from that report that council found itself debating Tuesday night.

Carew thanked the staff for researching the issue, though he wasn’t persuaded by the report.

“It contains many ‘ifs, coulds and maybes,’ that drives the recommendation,” Carew said. “From my own personal perspective as a councillor, I feel there are three reasons why we should be participating in a committee-of-the-whole. And there’s no ambiguity here. One, a committee-of-the-whole will bring a level of council transparency to residents that the Town of Paradise has not achieved to date. Two, all councillors will be engaged in discussing all departmental matters, important matters to residents, offering the best decisional outcomes. And three, residents will not have to wait unnecessarily for follow-up on committee level decisions as they wait for council ratification of those committee minutes.”

Councillor Larry Vaters said as a new councillor, he too had attended all the committees and found the experience invaluable. “Accountability, transparency, open government in any level of government is paramount,” Vaters said. “And the decision early in the tenure of this council to release committee meetings to the public was a step in the right direction. While the Terms of Reference (for committees) encourages discussion and asking questions at the public council meetings – and I take every opportunity to do so – I still feel the committee-of-the-whole would have its benefits too… That said, this is a democracy, the majority rules and through continuous improvement in the future, maybe there’s a way we can open up committee meetings for public hearing or provide more detail in committee minutes to make them more informative.”

One of the members of the majority to whom Vaters referred, councillor Laurie, outlined some of the advantages and disadvantages of committee-of-the-whole meetings that were identified by staff.

Among the disadvantages, said Laurie, was that committee-of-the-whole meetings might lead to expectations that council might be able to cover all its business in one single meeting. “Essentially what would happen is that all of our committees would meet in one meeting, so it would be quite a lengthy meeting,” she explained. That could lead to rushed decisions, she added.

Another disadvantage, Laurie said, would be the potential for a lower level of focus on the part of councillors because they would be dealing with so much business in one sitting. It might also dissuade interested parties and members of the public from attending the meetings, she said.

And giving up the private committee meetings in favour of public committee-of-the-whole sessions would be lead to another problem, she suggested. “There’s a potential to stifle good debate and discussions,” Laurie said. “Councillors are able to discuss and debate openly and freely in our closed sessions right now. That being said, our committee meetings are closed, but our minutes are public.”

Laurie suggested a proper balance between transparency and confidentiality would be hard to strike in a public committee-of-the-whole meeting. “We would all have to do some very, very extensive training,” she argued.

“Those are some of the perceived disadvantages that the staff have come up with,” Laurie said.

On the positive side, Laurie admitted, committee-of-the-whole meetings would allow all councillors to have a say on all matters of discussion, not just the ones pertinent to their particular committees. “This can still happen in our current governance structure,” she contended. “We all have the opportunity to sit as a guest in all of our committee meetings and we all have the opportunity to come here on the first and third Tuesday of every month (to the public meetings) to discuss openly any of those issues that we want to discuss.”

Laurie said she agrees with the staff’s recommendation. “Staff feel the current structure is more efficient and allows for an in depth dialogue at the committee level,” she said. “Moving to the committee-of-the-whole could reduce the amount of discussion and staff feels that discussion would be taking place outside the sanctioned meetings, perhaps through telephone or e-mail when it should be happening here where it is happening now in our public meetings.”

Councillor Patrick Martin also supported the staff’s recommendation. “I like the format that we do now,” Martin said. “I think going to committee-of-the-whole in an open setting would really have a time crunch on really important debates for really important issues.”

Councillor Deborah Quilty agreed with Martin. “I fully support the recommendation that came forward from the committee, she said. 

Quilty contended some committee meetings can run as long as three or four hours, so combining all the committees into one committee-of-the-whole session would limit discussion.

Deputy Mayor Kim Street agreed. “And there is some great conversation,” she said. “I don’t believe we’d be able to have that conversation in a committee-of-the-whole. I think it would be shortened and the discussion would be very different.”

CAO Niblock then asked to make a further point, one she discovered after completing her report. Niblock argued that scrapping the committee structure in favour of a long weekly committee-of-the-whole meeting would limit the number of people who could run for council, especially women with children, because many people wouldn’t have the time to participate in such sessions. “If you say you’re going to have one committee-of-the-whole, you’re taking out a whole population that could possibly consider running for council,” Niblock maintained.

That led Laurie to make a final point too. “The City of St. John’s currently has the committee-of-the-whole meeting public, (but) they do theirs during the business hours of the day,” said Laurie. “That’s a limiting factor for people as well.”

With that, Mayor Dan Bobbett called the vote and the motion to stick with the existing arrangement was approved. 

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