City council considers new format for debate

Councillor Sharie Minions suggests adding committee of the whole for transparency.

Port Alberni city council will look into the possibility of holding committee of the whole meetings in order to conduct more public debate.

Sharie Minions brought the idea forward during a Jan. 23 meeting of council, saying that the concept caught her attention on a thread she read on the Young Elected Officials Network on Facebook.

“I started to see that come up,” she said. “People saw a lot of value in being able to have that relaxed meeting.”

Committee of the whole meetings are not the same as regular council meetings, as they usually proceed as a discussion without decisions. Minions said the benefit of such a meeting would be the ability to debate on a specific topic without having to bring forward a motion.

“Conversation often takes part beforehand because we’re talking about what we can put on the agenda,” she admitted. “I think that it’s not intentional, but it’s ruining the transparency of our meetings.”

She said that she has seen some criticism of their meeting structure online. “I’ve seen some people criticizing us from time to time,” she said.

“And one thing that has come up fairly regularly is that we don’t always debate a lot during our meetings.”

A committee of the whole meeting would still be structured, as it would have to follow a general topic, but it would also allow the public to engage.

“You see people in the audience who want to speak, but we have to tell them no, you can’t,” said Minions. “It’s really discouraging to people who don’t understand the process.”

Josie Osborne, mayor of the district of Tofino, said that her district holds committee of the whole meetings once every six weeks.

“I don’t know the origins,” she said. “We’ve always done it in the four years I’ve been mayor. The procedures are the same, the only difference is that council is not in a decision-making capacity.”

Osborne said council will use the committee to bring items like large rezoning applications, development opportunities or new policies to the table.

Staff will come to the meeting and hold discussions so they have feedback before they draft a motion.

“The culture is slightly less formal,” said Osborne. “We will allow for more dialogue.”

Some of this dialogue is with the public. Although the public is still seated separately from council, there is a bit of back and forth, which doesn’t take place in a normal council meeting.

Osborne said the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District also holds committee of the whole meetings, but these are more infrequent, and are usually called to deal with specific topics.

Minions said from what she can tell from her research, most councils in B.C. seem to hold committee of the whole meetings. “Everybody sort of uses it for a different reason. So I don’t know what it would look like for our council.”

She provided the recent motion to rename Neill Street, which caused a great deal of public discourse, as an item that could have been discussed as a committee.

“I think the motion that [Alemany] brought forward was a good motion, and we maybe could have started with that,” she said.

“[We] could have started with general discussion in committee of the whole and come to that on our own, so it’s something that would be worth us exploring.

“I think we’ve all expressed sort of a desire to have more dialogue between us, so that’s the basis.”

Councillor Denis Sauvé was doubtful about the committee, saying, “It almost sounds like we’re not doing our jobs on council, so we need to have a separate committee to be able to debate.”

Minions clarified, “Committee of the whole meetings are official open meetings of council as well, they’re just a different format of meeting. It’s not that we’re going to do it on a sub-committee where nobody sees it, it’s quite the opposite. We’re going to do it in public. We’re going to allow for more debate in public.

“It’s definitely not to criticize that, but I think this is maybe a platform that will allow us to have more debate.”

Councillor Chris Alemany expressed his support of the motion, saying, “I do think it would be a great way to have a more open and free-flowing kind of debate where we’re not necessarily beholden to any motion. We can bounce ideas off each other, we can bounce ideas off staff and off the public. It does seem to give much more opportunity for that kind of free-flowing of ideas and stuff.”

The motion was carried, so city staff will look into how best to start a committee of the whole meeting for city council.

Minions emphasized that a committee of the whole isn’t necessarily a guaranteed outcome of this report, but it’s a possibility.

“Based on the feedback we’re getting from the public, we have a duty to explore other options for debate,” she said.

“My goal for it is that the public will get to see more of our debate,” said Minions.