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Monday's council meeting was a perfect storm of dysfunction

This week's Market Squared considers the eager delegates, emotional issue, and ignorance about process that led to an overly contentious council meeting this past Monday
20160201 Guelph City Hall Council Chambers KA

I had to laugh when Mayor Cam Guthrie opened Monday night’s gathering at city hall with, “Council is meeting here in council chambers for our council meeting.”

You can cut him some slack because he was clearly hopped up on goofballs due to a sinus infection, but let’s be honest about Monday’s meeting, it was all down hill from there.

Another long night in the council chambers was telegraphed from many quarters. There were 23 people delegating to speak to the topic of Corporate 100 Per Cent Renewable Energy Target by 2050. With Councillor James Gordon’s motion to reconsider the 2050 targets, the table was set for the biggest council meeting on environmental matters in some time.

In 2019 so far, I think we’ve all seen an increase in activism around climate change. From the divestment debate at the University of Guelph, to municipalities around Ontario declaring climate emergencies, to the growing political influence of the Green Party in Canada and in the recent European Parliamentary elections, we’ve got the future of the Earth front of mind.

Note too that this resurgence has been led by many of our young people who have taken their cues from Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old from Sweden who’s become a powerful face and voice in this new wave of environmental activism.

Considering that, I wonder how many people who wanted to take part in this auspicious occasion at council for whom it was their first time in the council chamber. This should have been, as councillor Dan Gibson alluded to, an educational opportunity.

And this isn’t just a matter of decorum, although, yeah, that’s part of it.

When the Gordon motion failed, at least a couple of people in the council chamber took it personally. There was some yelling and storming out of the council chambers, and it was surprisingly audible on the live stream of the meeting. At least that’s a tribute to the excellent acoustics of the council chamber.

On education though, it’s times like this we see just how much many of our citizens don’t know about how council meetings work.

On Monday, we had a perfect storm of issues. We had an active and engaged gallery concerned about an emotionally charged topic, who was largely unaware of the rules of delegating and participating with their local government.

I realize that the council schedule is set months in advance, but is it really so intractable that when a debate arises that’s bound to get a lot of community attention that we can’t take an extra night?

Watching this meeting, we saw how council had to bob and weave around desperately different issues when the lion’s share of the attention was on the environmental matters.

In other words, delegates and observers at council to lend support for a climate emergency declaration had to sit through debates on allocating affordable housing money, criticism of Bill 108, and whether or not people with an in-ground pool should have to install an alarm on their sliding patio doors.

Now, I know that in this space that I’ve argued that it might be a good thing to sit through debates you have no immediate interest in, but first things first, how can council work better for people?

Councillor Cathy Downer asked one delegate why so many people came out to delegate about declaring a climate emergency, and not for the motion to reconsider, which was, of course, a straight up and down vote without any debate.

Here’s a question: do we need a staff report and a recommendation to have a council meeting? Would it be possible for the mayor and council to say, “On this day, we want to hear from the public on a motion to declare a climate emergency”?

That actually sounds more like a town hall, but would it be so bad to have some kind of hybrid model for issues of community-wide importance? I would like to see something like this, and not just on matters of the environment. The next time that council talks about internet voting, it should be more of a hybrid council and town hall where the question is simply asked, “Should the city reinstate internet voting?”

It was also mentioned again that people don’t know how to delegate, or how to get their name on the delegation list or when the deadline to delegate is. Some probably don’t know where to even find the council agenda or know how far in advanced of a meeting it’s posted.

Somewhere in the nearly six hour meeting on Monday night was the opportunity for understanding and an exchange of ideas, but the time crunch, the format, the lack of information, and the emotion of the issue created something that was not a good look on Guelph, either in person or on the live stream.

Forget climate emergency – well, don’t forget it – but we also have an engagement emergency. And at least one of those is fairly easy to resolve.