When the Monthly Council Meeting is a Movable Feast

Back in July 2017, I wrote about CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke’s penchant for changing the day and time of regular monthly council and general committee meetings without warning.

I began by quoting the “Meetings & Minutes” section of the municipality’s web site:

Regional Council and its Committees meet in the Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall, 320 Esplanade, Sydney, NS. All regular meetings are open to the public.

Council meetings are usually held on the third Tuesday of the month at 6:00 p.m. and are broadcast on the local Cable TV channel and via live webcast.

The General Committee meetings are usually held on the first Tuesday of the month at 9:30 a.m. and are broadcast via live webcast. — CBRM website

I also quoted Clarke, who told Tom Ayers (now of the CBC, then of LocalXpress, the online newspaper run by striking Chronicle Herald workers), that he’d decided to combine the general committee meetings and regular council meetings for July and August and that he hadn’t given any public notice of the change because:

Some of that is just on the prerogative of the chair, which is myself, in terms of calling the meetings.

My story went on to explain that as chair of the regular monthly council and general committee meetings, Mayor Clarke has no prerogative to unilaterally change the time and date of meetings without notifying the public.

CBRM Council Chambers

City Hall

Flash forward to this (Monday) morning, and while the rest of you were out Nataling, or whatever it is you do on Natal Day, I was looking at the agenda for the August meeting of the CBRM council — a meeting that is not being held on the third Tuesday of the month at 6:00PM but on the first Tuesday of the month at 9:30 AM.

After verifying that July’s council meeting also took place on an odd day at an odd time (the second Tuesday of the month at 9:30 AM), I decided to double check the information on the CBRM web site and lo! and behold — it’s changed:

Regional Council and its Committees meet in the Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall, 320 Esplanade, Sydney, NS. All regular meetings are open to the public.

Council meetings and General Committee meetings are broadcast on the local Cable TV channel and via live webcast.

Upcoming Meetings will be posted on Fridays in the table below.

Read between the lines (which is how you should read everything out of “City Hall,” beginning with the phrase “City Hall”) and you get this:

All meetings are open to the public and they’re livestreamed on the internet and they’re broadcast on the local Cable TV channel and they happen at the Civic Centre (which we now call City Hall, although we’re not a city, but only cranks like the Spectator care about that) and basically we’re as open and transparent as a sliding french door in high summer when it comes to council and general committee meetings — WE JUST CAN’T TELL YOU WHEN THEY HAPPEN.

And why can’t they tell us WHEN these meetings happen? A year ago, they could. What’s changed? When did our regular every-third-Tuesday-of-the-month-at-6:00 PM council meetings become like ’90s raves, the day and time announced at the last minute to those lucky enough to remember to check the CBRM website?

I have a theory that the decision of our mayor to run for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party might have something to do with regular meetings of council becoming movable feasts. Mayor Clarke is a busy man who has to campaign across this entire province and can’t always make a regularly scheduled meeting in his own municipality.

 

Best practices

To test this theory, I asked CBRM Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell Ryan why the CBRM no longer lists a set time for regular monthly council and general committee meetings. I also asked her how and why it was decided the July meeting would be held on the second Tuesday of the month at 9:30 AM and the August meeting on the first Tuesday of the month at 9:30 AM. She replied:

The main reason the website was changed was because Council had changed the regular monthly Council meeting to the 4th Tuesday and the General Committee meetings to 6 pm.  It was felt that something more general would be more appropriate so as to not have published  incorrect information if dates/times needed to be changed.  In fact, Council changed the regular monthly Council meetings back to the 3rd Tuesday of the Month, and General Committee meeting will now commence at 1:30 p.m.

Shorter answer: we stopped posting the regular times for monthly council and general committee meetings because they’re never held at regular times.

So how are citizens  to find out when meetings are scheduled to take place?

The dates and times for all meetings are published weekly on our website and posted on social media. Further, we think it is beneficial to suggest residents check the webpage regularly and to look at CBRM social media as there are a number of other meetings the public would be interested in such as Fire Services, Police Commission, Nominating Committee, etc. that do not have regularly scheduled meeting dates/times.

As for the odd timing of the July and August meetings:

The summer meetings were combined General Committee/Council meetings held to deal with timely issues that required Council attention…The Council and Staff were notified back in May, as well as the Cable Companies in response to their request.  These meetings were included in the weekly notice from the Clerk’s office.

There was no official announcement, but public notification was provided in accordance with the MGA.

And who sets new dates and times for meetings?

They were set in consultation with the Mayor and CAO as per past practice.

And there it is: the mayor has been changing the meeting schedule. And while his changing the schedule in consultation with the CAO may have been “past practice,” changing the schedule so often the CBRM can no longer  claim to have “regular” monthly council and general committee meetings is surely something brand new.

 

Engagement

The point of having regularly scheduled monthly meetings is to encourage and facilitate public participation. Even if you intend to watch the meeting from home (as I frequently do, to facilitate my eating dinner and doing housework while listening), you need to know when the meeting is happening.

And I presume regular council meetings are held in the evenings, after normal business hours, to allow citizens (or councilors) who work to attend.

If you know Council will meet on the third Tuesday of every month at 6:00PM, you can plan accordingly. If you find out late on a Friday afternoon that council will be meeting on the following Tuesday at 9:30AM, you will be less able to do so.

Changing the day and time of council and general committee meetings from month to month is not conducive to citizen engagement. (I find the changes annoying and confusing and I get them emailed to me weekly)

A cynic might suspect the changes are intended to achieve the exact opposite of citizen engagement.

 

 

The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported. Please consider subscribing today!