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Changes to the region

Under proposed pilot program, committee meeting replaced by single say-long session

durham-region-headquarters-mainBy Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

Things may be looking a little different around regional headquarters this fall.

Following a meeting of all of the region’s standing committees, councillors have endorsed a pilot program that would replace all of the individual committee meetings with a single committee of the whole meeting. Under a proposed timeline, the committee of the whole would meet the week before council meetings.

If approved at the next meeting of regional council on June 8, the pilot would get started following the summer break in September, and last until the end of the current term in 2018.

Matt Gaskell, the region’s commissioner of corporate services and the author of the report that proposed the pilot, says the idea came as a way to consolidate the meeting schedule for councillors and staff.

“Well, it’s something that’s been brewing for a while because we’ve been, both us staff and regional council, have been getting concerned over the number meetings, and particularly the number of joint meetings,” Gaskell tells The Oshawa Express.

“After a while, the regional chair, the regional clerk and I had some discussions and thought maybe we should see if there’s a more efficient model.”

However, the idea that there are too many meetings drew ire from Oshawa councillor Nancy Diamond when the proposal was discussed at the latest joint committee meeting, who says councillors are elected to do what they are currently doing.

“We attend one committee, one council meeting every three weeks, unless there’s a joint committee. The finance committee does extra meetings, but I haven’t heard finance complaining about that as an issue,” she told councillors.

“And I can see from a political perspective, I don’t want to be going out to the public and tell them I’m too tired to come here two days out of every three weeks, and even with my March break and my summer break and my Christmas break and whatever other break, I think I should really only go to two meetings a month. The public is going to be saying we thought we elected you to do a job, we thought you would take it seriously. This is a $1.3-billion a year operation, and the board of directors should be at work.”

Another facet of the new structure that drew some contention was the possible length of the meetings, with councillors being told meetings are tentatively set from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., although depending on the agenda, meetings could be longer.

The most vocal over the proposal was Councillor Amy McQuaid-England, who says the uncertain timeline is unfair to those who have to worry about childcare.

“I have committed my entire schedule for my four-year term based on what we agreed upon at the beginning, and to not know whether committee is going to go past 5:30, to not know if some of the issues I care about are going to go past 5:30, it doesn’t make it conducive,” she said.

“When we change a schedule, and I heard the chair talk about you’re here on Wednesdays, you know you’re here on Wednesdays. Well, on those Wednesdays, my husband is off work early to make sure that he can pick up my daughter just in case council runs late. But he can’t do that every Wednesday.”

Gaskell admits that while meetings could go long, the benefits of consolidating the committee meeting structure will pay off in the long run.

“It could, at times, but I think there are times where normal committee and council meetings are lengthy as well. Far be it from me to tell the councillors what their responsibilities are. This was an option to them. But our review suggests that, on the average, although it would be longer than a normal committee meeting, it shouldn’t be inordinately long, and the benefits, we think, outweigh those detriments,” he says.

“And the benefits really are that every councillor gets to participate in the committee meeting. Every councillor gets to hear all the reports and actually have a vote at the committee, which doesn’t happen under our current structure.”

The commissioner adds that under the new structure, all councillors will have a chance to look at all matters at the committee level, get a chance to review things and then come back to council to make their final decision.

“It’s a week or two later,” Gaskell says of the time between the initial committee meeting and the council meeting where the matters are put up to a final vote.

“They can…receive input from the public. Perhaps they have come up with things that have changed their opinion, or they feel needs to be debated on the floor. We think that it’s a good model. We see real value in a committee structure because committee is, typically, where politicians roll up their sleeves and dive into the work.”