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The brown M&Ms theory of governance

This week's Market Squared looks at why the details matter when it comes to how our council meetings are run
Screenshot of Tuesday's city council meeting.

We just marked the third anniversary since the start of the pandemic, and we still can’t say it’s over.

Sorry to bum you out, I know it’s April Fool’s Day.

The pandemic changed the way we hold city council meetings, first by being entirely online and then using a hybrid format, but I’m starting to worry about the lack of consistency. Consistency is the fuel that governance runs on. We know the rules, we know how a meeting works, but do we really know what the rules are now?

I was sitting in the workshop meeting for the Downtown Parking Master Plan this week, and I couldn’t help but notice that there were way more staff in the room than city councillors. Heck, there were almost as many journalists in the room as actual councillors. Only three councillors were in the council chambers in-person and the rest were appearing virtually.

Now let’s be clear, no rules were broken.

The allowance for such a ratio was made when meeting rules were changed by the Ontario government at the start of the pandemic, but as we’ve talked about in this space before, the way things look are often more important than what’s permissible, and let’s be honest, to see the majority of council on the big screen like they’re passing judgment on Superman villain General Zod isn’t a great look if we’re trying to get “back to normal.”

I understand that there at least a few councillors who are looking out for their health and safety concerns, but I’m afraid my mind went to the place that assumes that everyone else just didn’t feel like going downtown for the early shift council meeting that’s meant to accommodate people who fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that technically speaking, and I definitely don’t want to be the hall monitor taking attendance. Having said that, I do worry about the convenience factor, and I include myself in this. It’s just too darn easy to stay at home and turn the computer on.

Now, what’s wrong with convenience? I confess, there are certainly benefits in hybrid forms for people who have children at home they need to take care of, or have environmental sensitivities, or might have to travel significant distances to appear at council. A good use was a meeting in February that coincided with a winter storm; the meeting was able to proceed while ensuring everyone’s safety.

Let me pivot here to something similar, but entirely different: internet voting. For all the reasons that enacting internet voting might be a good thing, they all get sandbagged when people start talking about convenience. Apparently, for some people, voting in local elections is important, but not important enough to make time in their schedule to go in-person to a physical poll on one of several days one’s open.

I also feel compelled to point out that there’s never a commensurate demand for this kind of convenience with provincial and federal elections. I’m sure there are people who would love the opportunity, but anecdotally speaking anyone that wants to vote in the federal or provincial election does, and they accept that doing so means going to the school or community centre down the block.

And playing fast and loose with election rules can breed trouble.

Down the road in Cambridge this week, a candidate who ran for council last fall brought a suit against the City of Cambridge over how the election was run. He specifically references the race to elect the local representatives to the Waterloo Region Catholic School Board, which was postponed two days before election day because two candidates’ names were left off the early ballot.

Retired political science professor Peter Woolstencroft told CTV News he had never seen an instance of an election being postponed before in Canada, and, as usual, such a move benefits well-heeled candidates. “Accidents happen, human systems fail us, people make mistakes. But there is a cost. There’s a question of trust,” he said.

People might say, “Well, it was just three positions in one board that was affected, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is consistency, and consistency breeds security, and security breeds trust, which is a commodity in preciously short supply in political matters these days. Some people may see election managers postpone a vote and say, “Why not?” while others see it and say, “What are they trying to hide?”

We’ve seen that happen in our own backyard just last year when a vote to demolish an old farmhouse in closed session missed a key consultation, and then a vote of reconsideration resulted in mass confusion about what exactly was voted on and why. And then council argued over what exactly the meeting minutes said.

Does a situation like this over such a simple motion engender trust in government? And how did this happen in the first place?

It happened because we were playing fast and loose with the rules, and it feels like we’re doing the same thing now. What might happen one day in a council chambers with such lopsided attendance between those appearing in-person and those appearing remotely? I don’t know, but I would much rather ask the question now than try and understand how things got bad when it happens later.

One of those most misunderstood stories in the annals of rock music is Van Halen’s demand in their concert contract to leave out a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed. It was considered a benchmark of rock star excess, but as David Lee Roth explained years later, it was meant as a test to see how closely the concert promoter read the details of the contract.

"If I came backstage, having been one of the architects of this lighting and staging design, and I saw brown M&Ms on the catering table, then I guarantee the promoter had not read the contract rider,” Roth said.

In other words, it was about the details, the little things. Should we expect less from our municipal government than we expect from Van Halen?


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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