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Editorial: Public should have a chance to ask questions at council meetings

Getting rid of the community comments and feedback section of city council meetings was a backwards step for accountability.
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Thompson City Hall

Council’s change to the organizational bylaw, which saw the body’s committee structure go from one with several standing committees with two official representatives from council each along with the mayor, who belonged to all of them, to a committee of the whole model, in which all of council participates in committee work, does offer certain advantages with respect to simplicity and transparency.

You don’t have to go that far back to recall the same committee model being used in Thompson before, or look outside the province to find other municipalities who operate in the same way, and it continues a trend that was started the last time this council looked at how it does business, when what were previously separate committees were combined to create a smaller overall number. (For instance, what was previously the recreation and community services committee was amalgamated with the public safety committee.) Holding the committee of the whole meetings outside of normal business hours, at the same time as council meetings on alternating Mondays, also makes them more accessible to residents, many of whom have jobs working the day shift. With the standing committees, meetings were often held on weekdays, at 10 a.m. or 12 p.m. or 4 p.m. and were rarely attended by members of the public. It was even difficult for the media to attend many, as news outlets in Thompson do not have more than a single journalist each and several committees a week eats into the number of paid hours this newspaper or CHTM radio dedicate to producing news stories.

There is, however, another aspect of the bylaw, which appears to do away with the community comments and feedback section of regular council meetings. At any rate, explicit mention of that agenda item is no longer mentioned in the bylaw, as it was in the procedural bylaw in effect since 2020. Passing the new bylaw did not move accountability forward but actually retrenched it.

Obviously, in a democracy, the ultimate form of accountability is having to appeal for the votes of residents every four years, in the case of Manitoba municipalities. If what you are doing is really unpopular, you won’t get re-elected. But in a broader sense, democracy should not be limited to merely trudging to the polls every few years, marking an X (or several Xs) on a ballot and then just complaining to friends and family or on Facebook or even in letters to the editor until the next vote. People who pay taxes, and even those who don’t, have a right to have a say in how their governments operate or, at the very least, make their opinions known to those who make the decisions. And elected officials should want voters to be engaged.

The fact that the community comments and feedback section of council meetings was eliminated does not in itself prevent people from seeking and even receiving answers from those who are answerable to them, but it does push it from the foreground of a public forum into the background. What exactly the reason for the change is, which could be efficiency or something less defensible, hasn’t been spelled out specifically. But this is also the continuation of a precedent, one established not by this council but by a previous one.

At one time, there was no such portion of council meetings. There was however, a question period at the conclusion of the meeting, during which residents or members of the media were able to ask questions of elected officials in a public forum. The other elected body in Thompson, the School District of Mystery Lake, still has a question period at their meetings, though the subject of the question is limited, at least in theory, to matters dealt with in the meeting that immediately preceded it.

Several years ago, council added a section known as general inquiries to its meetings, prior to correspondence and resolutions and bylaws, so that residents with questions unrelated to the matters dealt with at the meeting wouldn’t have to sit through the whole thing in order to make their query. That addition increased accountability. After it had been in place for a while, the question period at the end was done away with, apparently because it was considered redundant. Doing that had the effect of making some people wait longer for answer. 

Assume you had a question about something that happened during a meeting. At one time, you might get an answer at the conclusion of the evening. If the answer was not available, you might not get it until the next meeting, two weeks later. After question period was axed, the time you might wait doubled. You wouldn’t have an opportunity to publicly ask about a meeting until the next meeting, and if the answer was not at hand, it could be four weeks after the event before a question was answered in the same forum where it was asked. So, in effect, adding general inquiries and then removing question period was not a wash, but really a half-step backwards, in accountability terms. Getting rid of the reason that the question period was eliminated makes council less publicly accountable than it has been over at least the past 15 years, and most likely longer.

Granted, community comments and feedback was often used as a soapbox for council’s opponents to try to embarrass them or score cheap points in some sort of political pissing contest. Perhaps that was uncomfortable for some members of council but if they don’t like public scrutiny, they could always just not run for office. Not all questions were necessarily frivolous and removing the ability to ask ones that were genuinely seeking information or explanations in order to avoid the ones driven by other motives seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Now, you can only appear before council as a delegation or to make a presentation, which basically requires permission. It’s a little bit like being told civil disobedience is only allowed if you follow all the rules.

At some point, those who made the decision to do so will still have to answer for their choice.

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