Proposed changes to how residents engage with Hamilton Councillors threaten our fundamental democratic values.
By Cameron Kroetsch
Published June 29, 2018
The City of Hamilton is on the verge of revisiting its Procedural Bylaw [PDF], the bylaw that governs how Council makes decisions, spends money, and conducts representative democracy. All very important stuff.
The focus of this article is on a particular change that I think all residents will find troubling. Staff presented a review of the Procedural Bylaw at the June 28, 2018 Governance Review Sub-Committee meeting (item 9.1 on the agenda). You can read the proposed revision here [PDF].
The change being suggested in Section 7, "Order and Decorum", says that no person in attendance at a Council or Committee meeting may speak disrespectfully of any vote of Council or a Committee.
7.1 No person in attendance at a Council or Committee meeting shall:
(a) speak disrespectfully of any vote of Council or a Committee;
That may sound innocent enough, but the key word "disrespectfully" is not defined. That leaves some obvious questions: What behaviour constitutes disrespectful? Should we conclude that this is about rudeness or incivility?
The fact is, those sorts of issues, and issues of hate speech and other inappropriate conduct, are dealt with in other parts of the bylaw. This language quite literally means that you cannot disagree with the sometimes-bad decisions of Council or a Committee. For me, and I think for all of us, that's a violation of our right to speak freely to and about our government.
This change appears to suggest that our Councillors are not open to hearing what the public has to say, unless we agree with them. For me, this is exactly the wrong kind of thinking. I believe that as engaged residents, we need to increase, not decrease, our ability to hold our elected leaders accountable for the decisions they make. We need to be able to speak freely.
Last November I was given permission by the Governance Review Sub-Committee to work directly with the City Clerk's office to provide suggestions and comments on the existing bylaw.
I discovered that parts of the bylaw were contradictory and unclear and that some sections were just plain undemocratic. There are also sections of the Municipal Act cut and pasted into the bylaw without citations to indicate where they came from.
After my review, I submitted more than 200 comments to the City Clerk's office. My suggestions were all intended to make the bylaw clearer and more understandable for the average resident and to correct errors or omissions that might be perceived as undemocratic.
The City Clerk took about ten percent of what I submitted. While I believe those changes helped, the new language infringing on our democratic rights moves things in the wrong direction.
I find this all pretty troubling, especially since it's not at all clear where this is coming from. I wonder exactly what problem these changes are designed to resolve? Who asked the City Clerk's office to include them? And on what authority did they do this?
Councillor Matthew Green, who was, until recently, the Vice Chair of this subcommittee, is asking the same questions.
There are a few possibilities that have come to mind for me:
The City Clerk's office or the City Solicitor just changed the language and implemented it based on observations and what they perceived as a need for it.
An member of the public may have submitted this comment.
The subcommittee or another councillor could have come up with this language and submitted it to the City Clerk's office.
All three of these possibilities are troubling but the possibility that this came from the subcommittee or another councillor is the most concerning to me. If the subcommittee or its members were working together to formulate amendments to the bylaw, they are required, by law, to do so in public.
It seems to me that only councillors who feel threatened by public inquiry, commentary and criticism could be perceived to benefit from these changes.
The current bylaw mandates a public review before the end of this term of Council, yet these changes are being presented at the last minute. Rather than starting the process of review earlier on in this term of Council, and in stages leading up to the end of the term, the City has tried to cram them through at the last minute, all together, right before a municipal election takes place.
This doesn't give councillors enough time to review the changes closely. I know not every councillor who attended the subcommittee meeting had read the changes. The City has stopped including all of the appendices for agendas in the printed handouts to Councillors, which can further compound the problem for some Councillors who rely on printed documents to do their preparation.
In addition, the copies that were circulated did not include tracked changes (as they had when this exercise was conducted in 2014), making it almost impossible to see what changes had been made.
The amount of time it took me to prepare for my delegation tripled when I had to find and download professional software just to track the changes between the old and new versions. Residents should not be expected to do this, ever. I'd even argue it's unreasonable to expect Councillors, or their staff, to do it.
NOTE: you can see my revised version [PDF] if you want to check it out or pass it along to anyone. This compares the new proposed bylaw to the old procedural bylaw and shows the changes that were made.
The outcome of the subcommittee meeting was to direct staff to review the bylaw again, issue a report qualifying the proposed changes, and submit them to a legal review by the City Solicitor.
If the subcommittee waits until the end of August to hear back from staff, the time pressures will be even greater because the changes will have to go to the Audit, Finance and Administration Committee and then on to Council for approval.
Given the needlessly tight timeline, I recommend three actions:
Hold a special or emergency meeting of this subcommittee in July
Announce the meeting far and wide and encourage delegations from the public
Request that staff implement the feedback from the delegations into a new proposed bylaw to be approved at the August meeting
There's still time to get this right. Getting it right is not optional, it's mandatory if we want our City officials to demonstrate that they support our democratic values.
We can do better, and we can fix this, together.
Editor's Note: Cameron Kroetsch is a registered candidate for Ward 2 in the upcoming October 22, 2018 municipal election. You can see the official list of registered candidates on the City of Hamilton's Nominated Candidates for Mayor and Ward Councillor web page.
Raise the Hammer has a longstanding policy of not endorsing candidates, and this article should not be regarded as an editorial endorsement of the author. However, all candidates are welcome to submit articles for publication. We will accept any submission that does not violate our submission guidelines. Raise the Hammer is a free, volunteer-run publication that does not charge money for access to content and does not receive any revenue of any kind, including for commercial or political advertising.
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