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Region changing how council receives info

Commissioner says new system will keep councillors informed on a regular basis; critic says new system could be used to suppress dissenting public views

With changes to the committee structure at regional council set to get underway next month, staff have announced that information reports will only be added to agendas if the regional chair, chief administrative officer or councillors request them from a weekly information package. Linda Gasser, a frequent delegate at the region, says this new system could lead to fewer people speaking out against the region in public delegations.

With changes to the committee structure at regional council set to get underway next month, staff have announced that information reports will only be added to agendas if the regional chair, chief administrative officer or councillors request them from a weekly information package. Linda Gasser, a frequent delegate at the region, says this new system could lead to fewer people speaking out against the region in public delegations.

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

Although the rules surrounding how regional committees meet are set to change next month, the rules surrounding public delegations will not.

However, this will only apply to the first meeting – during which councillors will decide on the rules moving forward.

Starting next month, rather than having several standing committee meetings, councillors will instead hold a single committee of the whole meeting the week prior to regional council.

Approved in June, the pilot program will last through until the end of the term in November 2018.

According to a report presented to councillors in June that recommended the change, changes to the region’s committee structure come after “the regional chair requested the commissioner of corporate services and the director of legislative services/regional clerk to review the current governance structure in light of the large number of meetings each member is required to attend, along with improving efficiencies to facilitate the launch of an electronic agenda.”

One way that the region is making things more efficient is by limiting the number of information reports – reports that provide updates or information on specific items and do not require a vote to move forward – to what Roger Anderson, the regional chair; Garry Cubitt, the region’s chief administrative officer; and regional councillors decide should be on the agenda.

In an email on Aug. 17, Debi Wilcox, the regional clerk, advised regional councillors that report packages will be published on a weekly basis. From those weekly reports, information reports can be chosen to appear on the schedule for the committee of the whole and, therefore, regional council.

“Realizing that there may be exceptions where it is necessary for an information report to be discussed at COW, the process will provide that the CAO, in consultation with the regional chair and the appropriate committee chair, may request the regional clerk to include said information report on the COW agenda,” Wilcox writes.

“Members of council will also have the ability to request an information report contained in the CIP to be placed on the COW agenda for discussion.”

Councillors will have until 9 a.m. on the Monday prior to the meeting to request an information report be added to the agenda.

While the first council information package was put online on Aug. 19, the region did not issue a news release on the matter until Aug. 24.

Speaking with The Oshawa Express, Matt Gaskell, the region’s commissioner of corporate services, says that the information packages will allow councillors to stay informed of what is going on throughout Durham.

“What we are doing with the council information packages is really trying to implement a new process improvement in order to flow information to council quicker, on a weekly basis, so that we can give them information reports from department heads, correspondence from other municipalities and that sort of thing, and post it…so that with the move to once-a-month (meeting of) committee of the whole, we want to make sure that information continues to flow on a regular basis,” he says.

“The intention is that the agenda for committee of the whole should largely be focused on reports that require a decision from council.”

Voices from the public

One thing that will be seeing changes is how members of the public will speak to councillors at these meetings.

Under the current system, members of the public can submit delegation requests to the committee level first, and then on to regional council. The issue they wish to speak on does not have to be on the agenda, unless it is a meeting of more than one committee – however, despite committee of the whole being a meeting of all four of the region’s standing committees, Gaskell says that under the bylaw, committee of the whole is seen as a single committee, and therefore this rule will not apply.

Gaskell says any changes being made will have to ensure members of the public are still able to address their views and concerns to members of council in a public way.

“We’re still in the process of drafting changes to the procedural bylaw that we’ll be bringing in September to council to fully action a committee of the whole process, and that’s one of the things we need to address,” he says.

“Clearly, we need to enable the public to be able to appear before committee of the whole to speak on matters that are of interest to them.”

Gaskell adds that he does not anticipate that this will change.

However, not everyone sees these changes as positive.

Linda Gasser, who has made several delegations at both the committee and council level on the Durham York Energy Centre, says these changes could lead to fewer public voices being heard by councillors.

“I wonder if this was done, in part, to make meetings shorter, which a lot of councillors who supported the committee of the whole structure were concerned about,” she tells The Oshawa Express.

“I don’t see how this is going to improve decision making at the region or allow the public to track what issues are on regional agendas.”

Gasser says one thing that concerns her is how reports may or may not be added to the agenda, and then the short time from when councillors make their requests to add an item to an agenda to when a member of the public can request to make a delegation.

“If it’s in an information report now, we’re going to have to ask councillors that it be included on a particular committee agenda,” she says.

“A councillor has to let the clerk know by 9 a.m. Monday, and public delegations have to sign up by 9:30 a.m. Monday, and they may or may not know…if that item is even on the agenda.”

Gasser adds she is concerned that contentious items could be kept off the committee and council agendas, thus potentially limiting input from the public. Under council’s current procedural bylaws, delegates can only speak to a specific matter once every six months, unless there is a matter on the agenda that deals with it.

“Either someone didn’t think this through, or maybe this is one way to keep messy issues off the public radar.”