By Robert Washburn
Deputy Mayor Stan Frost’s proposal to change meeting times for Cobourg council went down in a resounding defeat Monday night in front of a nearly packed public gallery.
At times Frost was visibly agitated as his proposal to shift council meeting time to 4 p.m. from 7 p.m. was rejected in a 4-2 vote. Only Councillor Forrest Rowden was in favour, along with Frost. Councillors Donna Todd, Miriam Mutton, John Henderson and Larry Sherwin voted against.
Former councillor and local blogger Ben Burd was the only delegation to speak against the proposal. His speech, which was drafted in consultation with a number of people from the community, was focused during the beginning, but drifted off into a bit of a ramble towards the end as he broke from his written comments.
During the presentation, a number of councillors were barely able to look at him with the most obvious being Frost. It is hard to believe councillors can’t pay direction attention to someone who is making a presentation. These are often very short, less than 10 minutes each. It is so hard to think a politician can’t be attentive. Still, the mayor, Mutton, Henderson and Todd were paying attention as he spoke.
When Frost made his comments in presenting his last minute report to council, his voice was angry and his demeanor was aggressive. He tried to argue the change is about efficiency and effective use of resources. In one breath he argued it was not about convenience for staff and in the next he said he worried about staff being on their best game after working a 12 to 15 hour day.
He then argued his own public consultation was inadequate, yet 12 people responded. A majority did not want the change. But, Frost dismissed this without providing tangible evidence justifying why the results were not sufficient or what a good sample might look like.
Then, he argued the public has ample accessibility to councillors. But, there is a big difference between having access to politicians and public accountability. Private meetings are not recorded and it is not transparent. The reason public meetings are so important is the ability for decisions to be debated, positions made clear and a record of the deliberation is made public. We can all bear witness and participate.
Then, he went on to say how many meetings he attends during the day and blames people for poor time management skills who cannot attend an afternoon meeting. It was clear he was hostile and took a lecturing tone.
Finally, he said it was only a trial for three months, but gave no benchmarks to say how the success or failure of the proposal would be judged.
He ended with a quote from Einstein.
Rowden gave a pathetic defense. He argued council and the public need to get with the times. It is the 21st century and there are smartphones people, he added without any explanation of how this technology is significant. Let’s wait for him to get a smartphone, a Twitter account, Facebook page and a blog. Then, when he is using all those tools, he might offer some insight.
But, it was left to Todd, Mutton and Henderson to shred the proposal.
Todd simply dismissed it out of hand, arguing there was insufficient evidence given for the need for change.
Mutton makes her case citing her own inability to come to an afternoon meeting. But she was most devastating when she argued Frost’s proposal should be part of a larger communication plan addressing the public consultation process.
We often talk to the public, not with the public,” she said.
She also noted Frost surveyed other municipalities with afternoon time slots, but did not include Port Hope, which is right next door and meets at 7 p.m. Same with all the surrounding municipalities in Northumberland.
Henderson took the debate to the next level. He took the proposal to every one of the committees he sits on in the community. Henderson got comments from 20 to 30 people, putting to shame Frost’s attempt at public consultation. Geez Stan, maybe it is as simple as getting out and talking to people? He based his comments on those provided to him, saying people feels it would give the impression council was not accessible.
“Perception becomes reality in people’s mind,” he said.
Certainly the deathblow came from Mayor Gil Brocanier. While he did not give up his chair to make a speech, he summed up the central weakness.
“When we want to make change or want to do better, we should be able to measure it,” he said, implying Frost had no way to determine if the change would improve things.
With a new communications expert on staff, who was hired to improve community/town relations, this is a shaky start. Frost needs to go back to the drawing board and take Mutton’s suggestion to heart. There are many great technologies that create social networks. But, this is a far cry from a more democratic system. Broadcasting a meeting every second week is not a revolution in democracy.
A communications strategic master plan is in order, the same as a planning or recreation master plan, outlining the various tools and approaches council could use. Then, a budget could be drafted, benchmarks could be set based on solid political theory with realistic goals, along with a step-by-step guide to show how each change would improve community engagement and facilitate the flow of information in both directions.
What is more worrisome is how unprepared, annoyed and arrogant Frost was tonight. That attitude may work for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford but not here in Northumberland.
The issue of accessibility was much discussed last evening on this subject. However, our Deputy Mayor (and at times some of his councillor colleagues) have a profound misunderstand of the difference between the executive and legislative functions of governance. On the executive side (the practical day-to-day activities of governance) accessibility is whether or not I am able to communicate my concerns on a one-to-one basis with my elected representatives. This executive function is also demonstrated by the many special committees our representatives attend–or even community events. At these types of functions I should be able to “access” my political representatives. However, during the legislative process (i.e. where decisions are made on matters of policy) I want accountability and transparency. That is I should be able to witness, evaluate and have input into the policy making process. This is why our Mayor wears the robes “of office” at council meetings. The ceremonial robes are representative of something larger than mere executive functions and services–they are indicative of the wider voice, history and diversity of the entire polity.
I have no doubt my municipal councillors are accessible and I’m even willing to applaud their commitment to the executive functions of governance. But accountability and transparency of the legislative process are a different matter. Mutton appeared to understand at least one part of this in her remarks. Her concern was around her ability to faithfully represent and understand agenda items under a “compressed” time period of reflection in order to be suitably accountable to her constituents. Accountability is a good start. However, it was Henderson who best articulated “transparency”. He went out and consulted his constituents on the issue and then represented their views to council. He could have, as a matter of conscience, disagreed with his constituents and voted differently on the matter and still have been transparent. His fellow citizens were present to observe and evaluate his decision-making process. Henderson was at once both accountable and transparent. Our Deputy Mayor and his sidekick had no such understanding of the necessary accountability and transparency of the legislative function. For them accountability is the efficiency of bottom line thinking and the executive need for effectiveness. Democracy is not always effective or efficient, but as Winston Churchill so aptly pointed out, its still a better system than all the rest. My deepest gratitude to both my fellow citizens and elected representatives who understood this.
Tonight’s meeting was excellent, we got what we came for. It was very reassuring that the only ones who voted for the meeting time change were the Deputy Mayor and Forrest Rowden, two gentlemen who clearly want to be at home in their jammies by seven pm, bed by nine.
Next step is to persuade Council to add a question period for residents at Council meetings, maybe at the COW while there’s still time to gear up to influence the final vote. That move would likely inspire more people to show up, I know it would for me. Knowing I could get more details on agenda items right there on the spot would be a big incentive to participate.
Thanks Rob for ramping up the live blog for this important occasion, and to Ben Burd too for taking the initiative to come and speak out. And all the supporters who showed up at Council tonight, I think that made a difference to Councillors to know people do care about democracy in their local government”.