Questions, Questions, Questions

Ron Bolin: Oct. 18, 2017

re: Nanaimo City Council Meeting of Oct. 16, 2017

I don’t believe that anyone who has watched Council over the years (except perhaps Diane Brennan who did in fact object to the change but often leaves before Question Period is over) is of the opinion that Question Period as it has operated in Council meetings for years is of any particular utility other than offering an occasion for futile venting or, alternatively, for getting information –or the promise of it at some unspecified future date- after it is too late as question period follows rather than precedes Council decisions.  The news media observed this year’s ago and is generally not present for Question Period: Nor do I ever recall a question being asked in public by the media.

All the same, it was, in my opinion, a strategic mistake -even if technically permissible- to immediately implement a rather drastic change in procedure without public discussion. While the matter of Question Period was noted in the agenda there was no indication of the dramatic change that was to be immediately enforced or any hint of the document which was to be submitted by Staff to potential questioners for vetting prior to that evening’s Question Period. Shock and Awe is not a basis for amicable interaction between an administration and its public.

While the origin of the present format of Question Period is buried in history, its substance in contained in the following section from the City’s Procedure Bylaw:

  1. Question Period

20.1 At the Conclusion of the proceedings, the Council members shall provide time to answer inquiries from the Media and any member of the public, but such inquiries shall be strictly limited to matters considered by the Council at that particular meeting. The Chair shall determine, if necessary, when sufficient discussion has taken place.

“COUNCIL PROCEDURE BYLAW 2007 NO. 7060” Consolidated Version 2015-APR-20 Includes Amendments: 7060.01, 7060.02, 7060.03 CITY OF NANAIMO BYLAW NO. 7060 A BYLAW TO REGULATE THE MEETINGS OF THE COUNCIL AND THE CONDUCT THEREOF”

That’s pretty open to interpretation by any reading.

The “Surprise!” introduction of the changes to the format of Question Period on Monday, in my opinion, demonstrates how out of touch City Hall is with the public.  While encouraging the development of a “Community Engagement” function, it pulls a surprise.  The City is also, we are given to understand, in the midst of a review of its procedure bylaw… What was it about Question Period which was so immediately important that it superseded the completion of that review?  Or is it like the review of Development Cost Charges (DCCs) which were originally designed to be reviewed every three years but have not been updated for over 9 years.  Soon come, as they say in Jamaica…

In my experience, if we are to revisit changes to Question Period, it should begin with a document which is available to citizens as soon as an agenda is released which permits questions to Staff and to Council regarding items on the agenda.  These questions could be either formally rejected for cause or an appropriate response provided before the item comes before Council to ensure that legitimate questions are responded to BEFORE a Council decision is made.

In addition, the new procedure bylaw should include the requirement that all reports involving matters involving city assets should be thorough and complete, indicating, for example, any changes in City assets which are implied in a decision.  I have found it most egregious, for example, that decisions involving millions of dollars in acquisitions or sales do not indicate the impact of that decision on our asset management plan in addition to the immediate effect on the budget as these postponed costs are as real as is the immediate expenditure.

A final note on questions:  Questions may be of two essential and not necessarily independent characters: They may be about matters of fact or, particularly in the political sphere, matters of opinion.  Matters of fact or professional opinion are supposed to be non-political and should be answered by our professional Staff, while matters of political opinion should be answered by Councillors. Thus the questions arising from Council agendas should have received a response from Staff before the matter comes before Council; while questions involving the political significance of an item should be addressed to Councillors at a meeting before Council has made its decision.  In either event, asking questions after the fact as is currently done is more a matter of show than of substance.

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