Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Three changes John Tory could make to tame city council meetings

By: Metro Published on Fri May 08 2015

Mayor John Tory has a problem with his colleagues. Though improved from the nadir of the previous four years, the council meetings held under his watch haven't been very good.

Let's start with their fits of absurdity. During the election, Tory promised to end the circus-like atmosphere of last term's city hall, but this week’s council meeting featured a duly-elected councillor getting on all fours and pretending to be a raccoon, and another who warned of the danger posed by possums.

So while the tent may be smaller, but the circus is clearly still in town.

And then there’s the length. Though all council meetings are scheduled to last just two days, Tory’s last two have stretched to three. In both cases, councillors had to rush to avoid coming back for a fourth.

In comparison, by May 2011, Rob Ford had overseen just one three-day meeting.

Tory has been vocal about his frustration with the way council works, but so far hasn’t really talked about implementing any serious reforms. That’s disappointing, because there are several changes that could at least speed things up.

Start with these three.

When people ask me about attending council meetings, I always warn them away from the morning of the session's first day. Because for the first three hours of every meeting, pretty much nothing happens.

Instead, councillors deal with boring procedural matters. Every chair of each standing committee gets five minutes to talk up what their committee has been doing lately. They literally go through every page of the agenda so councillors can “hold” agenda items — tagging them for debate later. And then they talk about when and in which order items will be debated.

That's unnecessary. It’s already possible for councillors to indicate which agenda items they want to hold for debate before the meeting starts. That should be the only way to do it. Requests to debate items at certain times could also be made in advance, and then left to the discretion of the Speaker.

And seriously, cut back on the speeches from committee chairs. No one will miss them.

2. Delegate, delegate, delegate

For the most part, debates involving all 45 councillors should be about major citywide issues. Instead, they spend an inordinate amount time debating small, local matters.

For instance, this week’s meeting included two items about the removal of individual trees, three items related to the setup of temporary construction staging areas, seven items related to parking spaces, and more than 10 liquor license applications and OMB hearings.

We need a concentrated effort to get that kind of item off the agenda altogether. Authority to decide on local issues should be granted to local bodies, allowing community councils that represent the old cities to deal with them.

3. Consider radical change

Tory and the rest of council should feel no affinity for current procedures. The amalgamated city government is still young. There’s little history or tradition to protect. Radical change is possible.

So let’s get radical.

Right now, one of the challenges with this government is that items under debate can be substantially altered by councillors through amendments right before they’re passed. Important items can literally be re-written on the fly without careful study or consideration.

It leads to mistakes, confusion, and inaccessibility. Because staff recommendations can be amended, and then those amendments can be amended, council meetings can be nearly impossible to follow for people who aren’t policy wonks. Through amendments, certain agenda items can end up doing exactly the opposite of what they were initially intended to do.

A possible fix? No more amendments at council. If an item is before the full council, give councillors just three options: accept, reject or refer to committee, where amendments can be made.

This kind of change would require a wholesale reform of committee structure and procedure. It would also make committee appointments way more important, and could lead to more delays in getting items passed. It’s not something to wade into without careful consideration — but it just might beat the status quo.

This post was originally published at on 2015-05-08T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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