By Robert Washburn
It appears change is in the air for municipal politicians as a wave of democratic transformation sweeps the region.
Following the October election, various councils in Northumberland and beyond are holding their inaugural sessions, swearing in new and old members for the next four-year term.
With the new faces comes a new way of doing business. And, from a distance, it appears politicians wish to be more accountable to the citizenry, something many promised during the campaign.
It appears to have begun in Port Hope in early December, as the new mayor, Bob Sanderson, rearranged the furniture by moving the seats closer to the public gallery. He also moved his own chair down from the dais at the front, as well as closer to the public.
The symbolism is rudimentary, but powerful. After years of criticism leveled at former mayor Linda Thompson and the council for it high-and-mighty attitude, as well as being disconnected from the community, it was a potent sign this council plans it is going to be closer to the citizenry, literally.
Even the presence of the mayor’s dog (delivering on a promise made to his canine companion to attend the first meeting) gave a more relaxed, informal tone compared to the confrontational air of the past.
At the time when this column is being written, council is proposing a number of procedural changes, including moving its meeting times forward to 5:30 p.m. from 7 p.m., spreading out meeting times to the first and third Tuesdays of each month rather than every week to give politicians and the public more time to have input. There are some other tweaks to make it more open.
Next, down the road, Belleville Mayor Taso Christopher announced he wants to make some changes to his council procedures.
At its first meeting, Belleville council reviewed a proposal to move the meeting day to Tuesdays rather than Mondays, giving councillors more time to study agendas and get answers from staff.
He is also looking at going from afternoon meetings to evening meetings to make it more convenient for the public to attend.
The big stumbling block was the availability of the local cable station to televise Tuesday meetings. Staff was going to check to see if it can be done.
Finally, Cobourg council is also studying a proposal to alter its meetings in the sweeping spirit of democratic reform.
It is looking at a three-week cycle where the first week council would circulate the agenda. Then, on the second week, it would meet as a committee of the whole, a time when councillors can debate agenda items, but generally where no final decisions are made. On the third week, it would hold a regular council meeting, giving ultimate approval.
This would give the public more time to learn about critical issues, speak with councillors, prepare deputations and react to proposals. It would also give councillors more time to confer with citizens and staff.
Talks are also going on with Cogeco to broadcast both the committee of the whole meetings and the regular meetings. Until now, the cable station only does the regular meetings. If not both, then council would like the committee meetings to be broadcast live since it is where the debates tend to take place and it gives the public time to respond before the regular meeting finalizes any decisions.
Why the change of heart?
The municipal election was about change, despite the number of incumbents who survived. The sheer number of candidates was a sign the public’s interest in local politics is increasing. Much of the dissatisfaction was based on a sense politicians were not listening and the system was dysfunctional.
Port Hope voters were deeply upset with the last council over numerous issues, including, but not limited to, the proposed Entech-REM incinerator.
In Cobourg, while there was no single issue, there was a growing sense council was slipping as the marina proposal and the Legion development turned into major battles with the public.
The spirit is positive, but it will be up to councillors to make this work. Symbols are only useful if they truly inspire change. The upcoming weeks and months will be the ultimate litmus test. Citizens should hope for the best, but it might not be a bad idea to be vigilant – just in case.