By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Those attending council meetings in Oshawa may soon be switching their evening coffee for their morning coffee.
The city’s corporate services committee supported a motion that would see the start time of meetings shift from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 a.m.
The proposed changes would see meetings after a holiday Monday switched to 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays.
If a meeting cannot be scheduled on Tuesday due to commitments of regional councillors, it would be scheduled for the next available day, or at a time determined between Mayor Dan Carter, or otherwise appointed chair, and the city’s clerk.
The motion also calls for meetings to be scheduled on a four-week cycle instead of three starting on Jan. 1, 2020.
City council will likely make its final decision on the motion at the Dec. 2 meeting.
The motion, brought forth by Ward 2 city and regional councillor Tito-Dante Marimpietri, was the subject of a lengthy debate.
Marimpietri said over the past year, a number of council meetings have stretched into the late evening or early morning hours.
While he is personally fine with this, he believes there are several reasons why the change should be made.
He recalled speaking with a group of seniors who said they no longer attend council meetings because of the late hours.
Marimpietri said other residents have told him they don’t necessarily feel safe leaving city hall, and there have been cases of people, including children, waiting hours into the evening for council to make a ruling on an issue.
Having late-night debates on important issues is counter productive, Marimpietri added.
Ward 5 city councillor John Gray agreed.
Gray told The Oshawa Express he feels “most of us are going to be sharpest during the day.”
“When you start getting closer to midnight, you may not be as sharp as you were at 10 in the morning,” the former mayor said.
During the committee meeting, Gray said sometimes decisions are made late at night, and councillors may regret them the next day.
“When everybody is clear headed I think we make better decisions for the city,” he said. “That’s why I think daytime meetings are the way to go.”
Both Gray and Marimpietri also noted the long, late meetings put city staff in a less than desired position.
Specifically, Marimpietri said changing to day meetings would cut down the amount of overtime being paid to staff.
Lastly, he argued it would put Oshawa in line with Durham Region, and other municipalities such as Toronto, Mississauga, Peel, and York.
The most steadfast opponents to the move were Ward 5 city and regional councillor Brian Nicholson and Ward 1 city councillor Rosemary McConkey.
Nicholson called it “the most negative message we can send to the public.”
In his view, most people have “personal responsibilities” during the daytime, and he sees the motion “meeting the needs of council instead of the needs of the community.”
He went as far as to suggest some members of council want to work less.
Marimpietri later referred to Nicholson’s statement “as complete and utter B.S.”
Nicholson also pleaded with his colleagues for a public meeting to be held on the matter.
“Excluding the public from the process is not modern, it’s draconian,” he said.
Speaking with The Express after the committee debate, Nicholson said there is no reason to not get public feedback.
“I would have a public meeting, and people can have their say. If nobody shows up, you’ve made your point,” he said. “Every time this council has gotten itself in trouble this term is when it doesn’t ask the public, and thinks it’s smarter than the public.”
He was also critical of the plan to move meetings to a four-week cycle.
“The reason we have long meetings is we have less meetings,” he said.
Nicholson dismissed the notion the city’s meeting time should mirror those of the region.
“You can fire a cannonball through the audience (at regional meetings), and not hit anything, because there’s no one there,” he said.
On the point of staff working extra hours, Nicholson said with daytime meetings, they would still have to catch up on work they missed later on.
“It’s a trade off. Either they come in before or after.”
McConkey said she found the motion to be “offensive,” and a way to “choke” the public’s participation in council meetings.
“This motion is a step back. There is nothing modern about it,” she added
She said the city doesn’t run on a 9-to-5 schedule.
“It’s not ‘business hours’ we run, it’s people hours,” McConkey said.
Ward 4 councillors Rick Kerr and Derek Giberson both agreed there should be more public consultation on the matter.
“I’d really hope there is an opportunity to have a fulsome dialogue on this, rather than jumping to a decision,” Giberson said.
Giberson said he wanted to keep an open mind on the issue as there are other municipalities in Ontario having successful daytime meetings.
Noting councillors are there to do “the business of the municipality and the residents,” Giberson said it isn’t fair to ask members of the public to wait until almost midnight to hear their item of interest discussed.
“There are issues that need addressing,” he said.
Kerr told The Express he has “mixed feelings” on the motion.
While he acknowledges day meetings would be more appropriate for members of staff, he doesn’t think that holds true for the community.
“The thing is municipal government is much more grassroots in terms of issues than the region is. Things like concerns about grass cutting, animals, by-law stuff,” Kerr said. “To be able to get as many from the public to express their thoughts on government, I think the evening is the better time to do it.”
Kerr told the committee he hadn’t received one call on the issue, but had seen many people on Facebook who were opposed.
Ward 2 city councillor Jane Hurst said she was in favour of the motion.
She pointed out most evening council meetings don’t attract many people unless there’s a contentious issue, and out of the city’s 170,000 residents, there are a “handful of faithful attendees.”
“If the gallery was full every meeting, I would say don’t change it, but that’s not being demonstrated to me in any shape or form,” Hurst added.
Carter said he’s in favour of day meetings, as he feels it “modernizes the direction we want to go in.”
The mayor said the opportunity to schedule special and public meetings in the evening will remain.
Sitting in the position of chair, Carter sees the effectiveness of council and staff declining as meetings sometimes stretch into the early morning.
“You can see people are not as engaged, they are tired, and they are irritable,” he said.
Carter said he feels the matter can move forward without a public meeting.
“I think we have to address it at our [upcoming] council meeting.”
Ward 3 city councillor Bradley Marks, chair of the corporate services committee, told The Express he believes the motion would put Oshawa in line with other municipalities.
With live-streaming of council meetings, Marks said “no resident is at a disadvantage” when keeping up on municipal business
“You can be in tune with the click of a mouse,” he said.
Marks also noted he’s heard few concerns from his constituents on the matter.
The Express reached out to Ward 3 city and regional councillor Bob Chapman and Ward 1 city and regional councillor John Neal, who were not present at the committee meeting.
Chapman noted he wouldn’t have supported the motion years ago before the city began to live-stream its council and committee meetings, but now believes there is no issue with the change.
“There’s not a lot of people that actually come to the evening meetings – except when there is a controversial issue. And when we have a controversial issue, we’ve been having special meetings,” Chapman said.
He too believes the late night meetings can wear out staff members.
Many residents who want to address councillors do so at standing committee meetings, which take place during the day, and Chapman believes they’d also be able to do this at council meetings.
Neal told The Express he hasn’t had any constituents bring up the issue to him.
“I’ve never heard the public wanted it to be changed,” he said.
The committee approved the motion by a four to one vote, with Carter, Giberson, Hurst and Marks in favour. Nicholson was opposed.
The Express spoke to Oshawa city manager Paul Ralph on the issue.
Ralph acknowledged that as meetings go on longer, it will likely affect people’s ability to remain sharp.
However, he said the time when meetings begin is council’s will, and staff will adapt accordingly.
Ralph, who has been with the municipality for many years, recalls years past where meetings would go even longer than they do now.
“I wouldn’t call it a problem. It’s just a matter of the way council wants to deal with things. This council pulls a lot of items for discussion, [but] when you look at the previous council, there wasn’t a lot of items that were pulled,” he said.