Canmore’s newly elected officials were considering eliminating the public question period that occurs before every regular council meeting for the municipality, but have decided to keep it, with a few important changes.
Due to input from the Town’s lawyers, and direction provided to administration by council after the recent municipal election, draft changes to the procedural bylaw were presented and discussed at the committee of the whole meeting in November.
Mayor John Borrowman, however, put forward a motion to change the proposed bylaw that came in front of them to keep the public question period, but require those wishing to ask questions to provide them in advance.
“I would like to continue to allow questions to come from the public, but with parameters around that,” said the mayor. “This would continue to allow for public questions with … time to prepare a meaningful answer that brings value.”
The new rules around questions from the public include that they are not related to an item on the agenda; they are not currently being dealt with at public hearing and they are provided one business day in advance to the municipal clerk.
As well, the mayor would read the question, provide the name of the person who asked it and give an answer under the new rules.
Borrowman said he wants to continue to allow the public to ask questions of council and administration, but with better rules around how that actually occurs.
Earlier in the month general manager of municipal services Sally Caudill explained the reasoning behind the change to remove public question period from the agenda for public hearings and adding more restrictions to who may appear as a delegation in the future.
“Based on discussions at council orientation, council asked administration to bring forward a proposal to amend the procedural bylaw by removing the public question period and adding parameters around the purposes for which a group or individual may appear before council as a delegation,” Caudill said. “The proposed changes are intended to address concerns around procedural fairness.”
She said the intent to change the bylaw is not to limit access to council for community members, or muzzle voices in the community, but to ensure there is “procedural fairness” when it comes to who and what can be presented to council and when.
Public question period was added to the procedural bylaw in 1995, and it does not form part of the official meeting record. That means those who appear, ask a question, and responses are not recorded as part of the official minutes for the meeting.
Caudill said there is no standard for municipalities across Alberta when it comes to providing a public question period, as many don’t have that on the agenda at all to begin with. Banff, for example, restricts all questions to items on the agenda for that meeting, while Airdrie provides a question period in the middle of the agenda, instead of at the beginning.
Changes proposed also affect how delegations would be approved to appear in front of council, and were approved by council at its Nov. 21 meeting.
According to the staff report, a lack of regulations around delegations have created situations where the agenda review committee is “in the awkward position of being unable to decline a request for delegations lobbying council about an issue they have yet to make a decision on.”
Caudill said the lack of clear rules around both question period and delegations have resulted in concerns with procedural fairness. The issue is that often only one side of an issue appears in front of council to communicate a position, and the opposing view does not.
Recently, a group of residents from Hubman Landing hired two lawyers to appear as a delegation to council prior to a decision that affected their neighbourhood and they clearly were lobbying for a specific decision by council. Those on the other side of the issue, however, did not get an opportunity to present their position.
The Hubman Landing delegation and input from legal counsel has resulted in the overall questioning by council around paramaters to allow delegations to appear, Caudill said.
“Delegations were historically used to announce exciting community initiatives, and we have seen both question period and delegations used by groups or individuals who have opinions on one or more sides of an issue,” she said. “The lack of clear guidelines for groups could create confusions and inconsistencies around procedural fairness.”
Borrowman said council could be communicated with through email and in person and there are multiple channels to get a message to elected officials.
“The real message is, there are a number of ways to ask me and other councillors questions and I am encouraging people to use all those other methods,” Borrowman said.
However, when one side of an issue has more opportunity than the other side to have its point of view heard, it can lead to concerns around whether the process is fair to everyone, according to Chief Administrative Officer Lisa de Soto.
“What we have learned through experience is our process is being used by questioners to advance a position on an item currently before council for decision and their intent is to influence council,” de Soto said. “That does and can raise a question of procedural fairness if council does not hear from all sides of the issue.”
Councillor Jeff Hilstad said it is important to keep options for the public to have their concerns heard and questions answered.
“I would personally like to have a public question period,” he said.
Delegations looking to present to council would continue to have to go through the process set out in the procedural bylaw, but if council’s future agenda schedule includes the topic the group would like to address, they would be denied due to the issue of procedural fairness.