The discussion became heated at a District of Kitimat council meeting Nov. 30 after Councillor Lani Gibson proposed changes to how the municipality conducts its committee of the whole (COW) meetings.
One of those recommendations was to alternate who chairs those meetings — a role that current rules reserve for the mayor (unless absent) — and Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth said he took offence to that proposal.
This past November alone Council had three COW meetings out of five meetings total, Germuth said, and if they’re switching up who runs the COW meetings, councillors are running more meetings than the mayor, “the person who got elected to do that. The person who got, not only the privilege, but the responsibility to do that.”
“To have something like this coming up halfway through an election term, yeah, of course you take offence to it,” Germuth continued. “It’s like somebody coming into your job and saying, hey, you know what, I know this is what you’re supposed to do but I want to take that away from you for half the time. That’s exactly what it is. I don’t see the need to do that at all.”
Other recommendations presented by Gibson include modifying the rules of debate to allow for more informal discussion, allowing staff and other advisors to participate in the discussions and decisions, allowing members of the public to attend (including through Webex), except for items that have to be discussed in camera, but not making a video recording of the meeting, and setting a time of day and duration for the meeting that allows time for a meaningful discussion of the issues, and limiting the number items on the agenda to provide as much time as possible for the bigger items and discussions.
The initial discussion was divided, as some of mayor and council felt these were good suggestions to try to implement, while others felt that they were already doing much of this and there wasn’t a need to bring about massive change.
“On close reflection of the key kind of aspects of having more dialogue and committee of the whole-type discussion, I feel that it’s working,” Councillor Mario Feldhoff said. “I feel that when we have a need to kind of get together and roll up our sleeves…when we have things that are more complex and we need to get together, I find that we do get together.”
“We don’t need to change our bylaws,” Feldhoff continued, “we just have to be on the lookout for additional opportunities to do the things that we do already.”
Along with that, Councillor Mark Zielinski added that they already have four or five meetings a month and it felt too overwhelming to try to add extra meetings to their already-busy schedules.
However, other councillors felt that while, yes, they were already doing many of the suggestions, it could be good to formalize things to ensure they continue doing them going forward.
“I think this is the reason we need to actually formalize this and it’s important that we put, you know, just a little bit of guidelines around it, and try to plan to have more of those, make it not just an ad hoc thing that happens just every once and a while, but certainly for, you know, some major issues,” Councillor Terry Marleau said. “Certainly not for every little issue would we want to do that, nor do we have the time to, we’re a very busy schedule. But I think it is important that we do set aside some time where we can, as it states, you know, do a bit of research, have some discussion.”
Councillor Rob Goffinet added that he felt the value of formalizing these suggestions lay in the details, so they could get those minor things out of the way and instead focus on the larger issues that these recommendations were actually hoping to address.
“There’s quite a bit of value in coming together and strategically looking at points of view about big parts of our work. I do not see fundamentally and strategically anything that I would disagree with this about,” Goffinet said. “The devil — and I realize I’m quoting one of my colleagues — the devil is in the details. ‘How many times would we meet? Who would we invite?” Those are details about how to really make a Committee of the Whole work.”
Gibson said one of the main reasons she wanted to bring this report forward was to make sure they had scheduled times to discuss the bigger, more in-depth issues, as they often don’t have time for them with all the other items present on each meeting’s agenda.
“I’m bringing this report forward because it always seems that it’s a struggle for staff to find a time when all of us can come together,” Gibson said. “We go to the trouble of booking all of our sessions in advance for our regular meetings and for what we’re currently doing for COW’s, and I’m just saying, let’s look at a calendar for 2021 and let’s actually say, here’s the time where we’re going to do things a little bit differently.”
Germuth said that the report Gibson used as an example, which was from Michigan State University, was not accurate. He said it refers to community boards, not municipalities, which are a different form of government and preside over regions somewhat “larger than cities, but smaller than states”.
“There’s a few differences there, but I think Councillor Gibson said it very well at her opening: we’re doing a good job,” Germuth said. “And I don’t see a need to make any major changes at all.”
On the issue of consensus, Germuth said he doesn’t believe they have an issue with that, either. Bringing out some numbers, he said that he did the math on the voting record from January 28 to November 19 of this year.
Germuth said that there were 70 motions from Council discussion from COW meetings during that time, and all seven members of Mayor and Council were present for 50 of those decisions. 36 out of 50 of those motions, or 72 per cent were 100 per cent consensus among Council on the decision, and seven out of 50, or 14 per cent were 85 per cent consensus on the decision.
Lastly, on the recommendation of not recording the meetings, Germuth said he absolutely could not support that part.
“Taking out the video, no, of course I couldn’t support that. Everyone one of us, I think ran and said, openness and accountability. Taking that away, especially during COVID, would be a disaster, and taking it away period is not, you know, it’s not being open and honest, open and accountable.”
“I realize, yes, public speaking and being on camera can be really tough for any one of us, no matter how long you’ve been on Council,” Germuth added. “But it’s what we got elected to do. We’ve got to suck it up, and that’s what we ran for, that’s what we’re in for, and to try and take things away from people being able to see it is clearly not the — I don’t believe that’s the way to go.”
When Gibson spoke again, she said first and foremost that she meant no disrespect to Germuth with the recommendations she brought forward, in particular the one involving the idea of a rotating chair.
“There was by no means any disrespect intended. I can see when you talk about the possibility of chairing even less than you were elected to do, I can see your perspective on that,” she said.
Gibson added that she brought it forward because it was part of the report, which she used because she thought it was a good summary of what she understood COW’s to be. She also felt the report was relevant in how it shows how a COW is meant to be different from a regular meeting and what some of the options are to help governments make them different.
“I said that it’s worked when we’ve done it, but we’ve done it ad hoc and that’s the problem,” Gibson said, adding that one time in particular where she noticed things not working was when Council received a 10-year Leisure Services Master Plan earlier in Council’s term.
While she had many questions, given extensive size of the document, she said she wasn’t able to ask everything as Germuth had said there wasn’t enough time in that particular meeting due to the number of items in the agenda.
“If we’re receiving a report for a 10-year master plan for one of our main departments, that’s where — that should be on an agenda with only, you know, two other items at most,” Gibson said.
However, despite the initial division, the night ended on a consensus and the report and recommendations by Gibson were received for future consideration and information.
There was also a consensus with Gibson’s final motion for a report to be brought back by staff, including a 2021 schedule for the COW meetings; thoughts about a facilitator for items where it would be good to have extra support reaching consensus; and seeing if there are six to eight times a year where Council could have meetings earlier in the day to allow more time for discussion and more attendance from the public and others.