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Market Squared: The Marathon men and women

Is going too long at council and committee good for the business of the city, and are we doing too much in July to take August off?
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There’s a moment when you’re in the seventh hour of a council meeting when you’re too tired to go on, but too stubborn to give up. You’re tired, you’re hungry, and even on the hottest day of the year the council chamber feels like someone’s try to single-handedly start an ice age, but you persist because this is municipal government, and it’s not a place for the faint of heart. 

You may recall about a month ago when a meeting of city council almost spontaneously did away with Committee-of-the-Whole. The move away from a standing structure was not uncontroversial, or as controversial as debating the structure of committee meetings can get, and on the occasion of a report on the six-month review of Committee-of-the-Whole, a majority of councillors almost pulled the plug. 

From the beginning, Committee-of-the-Whole created some friction among council and council watchers. The first meeting in September 2016 clocked in around five hours and 20 minutes, which for the committee regulars was about twice as long as they were typically accustomed to. There was a bit of shell-shock, and for the next month bets were being taken about how long the October meeting would be. That committee meet was a relatively slim three hours, and for the most part, that suited everyone. 

Now what’s been lost (or maybe gained) in terms of the length of committee meetings, has seen benefits in the decrease in the length of the council meetings because all the councillors are getting a chance to have their say in committee now. That’s one of the things that City Clerk Stephen O’Brien discovered in his six-month appraisal of the new system, more pain now means less pain later. 

It makes sense, but the fundamental problem remains on those rare occasions where council and committee carries on for six, seven, or, as happened Monday, eight hours. How can we know we’re having full and complete debate of the issues when we’re nearing a full work day on council matters alone with only a 15 minute break to sustain council, staff, delegates, observes, and yes, the media? 

Of course our eight-hour “Marathon” looks positively breezy as compared to Toronto’s last council meeting before summer break. As I write this, Toronto council has adjourned for the night and have set to continue their meeting for a third day. 

That process began Tuesday with a 265-item agenda including a plan to remake Toronto Community Housing, a radical new approach to combatting climate change called TransformTO, and Councillor Michael Ford’s attempt to pick up the War on Streetcars baton dropped by his dear departed Uncle Rob. At this rate, we hope no one in the City of Toronto has weekend plans, and any one involved with city council in Toronto will likely read this and cry “nimby” at these complaints about eight long hours at committee. 

It adds up to the same whole though, can a councillor in Day 3 of a meeting be as fresh of mind and focused as Day 1? Can a councillor in Hour 8 be as nimble and discerning as he or she was in Hour 1? You may argue that this is the responsibility that every councillor has taken on by being elected, and that you, average Joe or Jane Blow Citizen, must do the same every day, but is there no sympathy or concern for those who are imbued with the responsibility of smartly enacting programs, projects and budgets to a cost of thousands, or millions of dollars? 

This, of course, is easier said than done. The core problem when it comes to scheduling is that being a city councillor in Guelph is still, technically, a part-time job, which means to support themselves, and their families, some of them do have other jobs. What’s easier to schedule: one day a month to dispatch all committee business, or four or five days per month? On top of that there’s council meetings, community engagement, events, meetings, meeting prep… You get the picture. 

This realization inevitably leads into the discussion of full-time councillors, and this exploration was supposed to been done by staff last year, but it was cut due to concerns about adding too much of an increase to the budget. A year later, the city was perhaps in a better position both mentally and financially to proceed, but doing that work now would be cutting too close to the 2018 municipal election. 

Now that’s not to say that Guelph *has to* make the conversion from part-time to full-time councillors, but I think most would agree that were past due for the discussion, especially in circumstances where lengthy agendas come before committee, and the demand to make right decisions rubs up against simple human biology. 

Of course the thing that Guelph and Toronto have in common right now is that they’re both trying to finish a lot of work before taking a summer break. Adding confirmation to that speculation is a look at Monday’s planning meeting agenda, which includes the public statutory meeting for three new developments: two high-rise blocks and a controversial cluster of townhouses that’s already been to council once. 

Now we all like a nice break, including me who looks forward to using the extra time to finish Politico’s promised move to a new website, but in the interest of making the best possible decisions, and giving those decisions the best possible coverage, perhaps the least troubling move is to cast away the August break, or at least experiment with the idea that a shortened break might be in order. 

When we’re talking about these breaks on the federal or provincial level, it’s more understandable because members get to spend more time in their communities with their constituents. For city council though, all their constituencies are a quick walk or bus ride away. The only time zone you cross is Guelph time, which may or may not be real depending on who you’re meeting with. 

The counterargument, I suppose, is that a lot of people take vacation time in August, both on the council side and among staff, but by the time committee adjourned on Monday it was a nine-person panel; James Gordon and Phil Allt were otherwise engaged, Andy Van Hellemond left early in the meeting, and Dan Gibson left about halfway through to make a flight. That’s not ideal, but for one meeting, we made it though okay. 

Let’s propose that as we debate the issues next year, we save some time to debate how we debate in the council chambers. Running is easy, talking about the Urban Design Manual intelligently on an empty stomach is hard.