Stemming from last evening’s All-Candidates forum and some posts on social media, this article is written partially in response to two concerns raised: Closed meetings and Unanimity on council.
There is a misconception about “Closed” council meetings; that they are attempts to hide information from the public and that they reflect a council that is less than transparent. The Community Charter stipulates that with respect to a variety of topics, meetings must be closed to the public. The more common ones are: contract negotiations, personal information, matters relating to litigation, labour & employee relations, and land transactions, the disclosure of which may harm the interests of the municipality.
It should interest the public that on more than one occasion, individual council members have challenged the basis for discussing certain items in “Closed”, upon which a “Community Charter” rationale is provided. The principle of open government is taken seriously by all council members, and rationale for discussing matters in “Closed” session is always scrutinized by members.
Several weeks ago, the Abbotsford News published an article on the degree of unanimity on Council. Since then, I have heard much public feedback and have also been personally challenged on this matter. At last evening’s “All Candidates” forum, this issue was highlighted by one candidate in his opening remarks as a criticism of this council’s record. I have responded to this some weeks ago in my blog, but will repeat some of those comments here for your benefit.
I shall preface my comments by saying this is my fourth term on council; I have served under four different mayors. At times, my experience was that we were quite dysfunctional and unable to move forward with important agenda. In contrast, this council has been the most effective and efficient in use of time.
Shortly after the last election, council and senior staff gathered for several days to develop and adopt a strategic plan for this term. This plan was built on four cornerstones: a vibrant economy, a complete community, fiscal discipline, and organizational alignment. These would be the guideposts for consideration of everything we were to do in the next four years. Staff understood that new planning initiatives would have to align with this strategy, and departmental business planning and budgeting would be guided by it. This was very significant in making our time more productive.
The second piece was the adoption of alternating Council meetings and Committee of the Whole (COW) meetings. All major initiatives and any challenging proposals came to COW before it was considered at our formal Council meetings. These informal meetings were not decision-making meetings, and they were open to the public. Council members were given a first glimpse of the draft report and the opportunity to critique and provide constructive feedback to staff. This feedback was then considered in shaping final reports that came to Council. For Council not to approve at that stage would be quite unusual, unless extenuating circumstances were encountered at that stage. This process has enabled council to be much more effective in achieving the strategic plan we set out to pursue four years ago. The plan is in progress and will continue into the next term, subject to the wishes of the next council.