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Proposed Banff bylaw to limit council debate: political science prof

“This is moving the needle away from democracy. It’s a muzzling addendum.”
Banff Town Hall 1
Banff Town Hall

BANFF – Town of Banff administration is pitching a significant change to a bylaw that could stifle meaningful debate.

Under the proposed procedures bylaw, which administration contends in part aims to make meetings more efficient, a council member can only debate a motion once, with time for talking limited to five minutes per person.

Critics worry this will limit debate and muzzle councillors, rather than leading to an exchange of ideas and points of view that lead to better decision-making, and give rise to councillors giving individual speeches rather than discussing the matter at hand.

Lori Williams, associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University, said the proposed bylaw looks like an attempt to limit meaningful debate and restrict individual councillors from speaking effectively on behalf of their constituents who elected them.

“I haven’t seen anything quite like this and, of course, the problem is always the unintended consequences,” she said.

“I get some of these meetings go on forever and some people are long-winded, but it looks like it’s shutting down debate, and debate is about exchange, it is reciprocal, it goes back and forth, and that reciprocity is pretty essential, and to stifle that diminishes meaningful democratic input.”

Williams said limiting meaningful debate can also prevent potential resolutions to matters.

“If there is the possibility of interchange, it can provide options and input and possibilities that might not have been otherwise arrived at,” she said.

“That interplay can actually fuel solutions to problems that nobody imagined before the discussion was had.”

Administrative officials say this would be a substantive change, but one that is supported by Robert's Rules of Order – a time-tested standard providing common rules of parliamentary procedure for deliberation and debate and to run orderly meetings with maximum fairness to all members.

Although no member would be able to debate twice on a motion under the proposed change, they say the councillor who moved the main motion may respond with questions raised during debate after all other members have been given an opportunity to speak.

Libbey McDougall, municipal clerk for the Town of Banff, said this change will help ensure a meeting runs efficiently.

“Additionally, as this is not a legislative requirement, this rule is suspendible at any given time by way of either unanimous consent or a majority vote,” she said.

Williams said she believes there are better ways to help meetings run more efficiently.

“I think an effective chair using the rules can be quite effective in giving room for things to be said, while moving the discussion along and preventing anyone from sort of being an obstructionist,” she said.

Williams said a better approach could include an overall time limit per councillor on each motion, leaving it up to the individual councillor to choose how to use that time for meaningful discussion and debate.

“To my mind, rather than speak once for five minutes and shut up, I think  a much better approach would be to sort of say there’s a set length of time that someone might have, unless there are extenuating circumstances, that allow that interchange,” she said.

“With the particular approach they’re talking about, you speak once, we don’t want to engage in discussions, we want you to shut up, that sends the wrong message because there were people who voted for that councillor, voted for that council. You want them to work together."

The bylaw was before the governance and finance committee meeting on Sept. 26 and is back on the agenda for the committee’s meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 11).

The proposed bylaw raised alarm bells for Coun. Hugh Pettigrew.

“My fears are by limiting debate as proposed will impact our ability to ask questions that may come from such debates,” he said.

“This is moving the needle away from democracy. It’s a muzzling addendum.”

During the Sept. 26 meeting, the committee narrowly defeated a proposal to change the duration of regular council meetings from four to five hours amid fears longer meetings would lead to decision-fatigue.

In addition, the committee agreed a majority vote would be required to extend a meeting beyond 6 p.m. instead of unanimous consent as is currently required.

Of the 12 regular council meetings up until July 11 this year, three were about four hours long and three extended beyond the four-hour limitation. On two occasions, council did not get unanimous consent to extend the time beyond 6 p.m., which led to a special meeting being called to finish up an important matter.

“Your council meetings are routinely going longer and we’ve had to extend on several occasions now,” said McDougall. “This is an opportunity to give council a little bit more flexibility.”

Coun. Ted Christensen was quick to give a thumbs down to a five-hour council meeting, noting it already follows the governance and finance committee meeting the same day scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the same day.

“I know that after spending a morning in governance and finance and four hours in a council meeting, that I think I am not as effective at 6 o’clock,” he said.

Christensen said this speaks to the larger issue of what he sees as council’s increasing workload.

“Maybe we have to have more meetings, but longer meetings I don’t believe are effective,” he said.

“And when we have more meetings, perhaps we have to consider increasing the remuneration for council – not that this is a key point for me – but more work should equal more compensation.”

Some members of council saw the need to make the meetings more efficient and for time to be better managed.

“We all have a responsibility to tighten up our monologues and our opinions and make sure that our time to speak is productive and concise,” said Coun. Barb Pelham.

Mayor Corrie DiManno agreed with many of the comments.

“I like to call it legislation by exhaustion, that after a day of decision-making, certainly we’re not as sharp anymore,” she said.

“That being said, we do have an ambitious work plan and these are things that council has asked of administration and so it’s incumbent upon us to try to be really efficient with our time,” she added.

“At the end of the day, if we’re going over, it’s because we’re not working as efficiently as we can as a group. In my opinion, sometimes that is the case.”

Christensen was quick to respond, saying it is about good governance and not expediting meetings.

"It's my understanding of the meetings and the processes we’re not here necessarily to expedite business; we’re here, to quote a passage from an old Robert's Rules order 'to subserve the will of the assembly rather than restrain it'," he said.

"We're here to have the opportunity to voice the opinions we hear in the community. We’re not here to make this necessarily an efficient business meeting."

The new bylaw also proposes motions, including motions to amend, should be provided to the municipal clerk or town manager prior to a meeting wherever possible, which administration said will ensure that “concise, well thought-out motions are presented at meetings.”

The bylaw also indicates that input of administration should be considered when making motions to ensure any legal, financial, and operational impacts are professionally addressed, which Williams said can already happen during the council discussion.

Williams worries this change would also diminish flexibility for council.

“What if someone in response to something that’s been said during a meeting prompts a motion? I can’t count the number of meetings I’ve been in when something that nobody thought of before the meeting happened and actually a quite clever solution or compromise or a new idea comes up,” she said.

“It can be moved in the moment and amended in the moment and you can get a much better resolution, a better much idea, a much better policy or proposal than would otherwise have been possible.”

Town administrators say the proposed changes to the procedures bylaw are a result of administration’s observations, best practices and advice to council from registered parliamentarian Eli Mina, a Vancouver-based consultant, who met with council as part of their orientation.

“This is your procedures bylaw, though, so the intent of today is to go through this in detail; there are some significant changes in here,” said Town Manager Kelly Gibson.

“We want to make sure that council are comfortable with those changes. Most can easily go back to the way they were if you feel that’s better.”

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