Are the City’s Regular Council meetings scripted? That was the question that was posed to me by one of the other Council candidates during the third Stave Lake Open House held at Rick Hansen School.
A bit taken aback, my reply was that this was not an accurate reflection of how City Council normally operates. I then asked the contender what had caused the question in the first place. As I listened, it became apparent that skeptical conclusion stemmed from a perception that Council routinely approves matters that come before it with very little debate, if any. No questions are asked, all in favor, opposed, carried and on to the next matter.
Certainly there are items that come before Council that may appear routine; such as receipt of Committee Reports (of which there are many) , Minutes of meetings, and correspondence, which have to be received by a motion to receive or adopt. However, that does not mean that Council members have not reviewed the material and discussed the issues amongst themselves prior to the Council meeting.
During my tenure on the Abbotsford Airport Authority Board, there were times when I was invited to be at closed sessions of Council to discuss sensitive and confidential information pertaining to the Airport. I can attest to the fact that open and sometimes very frank discussion among and with Council members took place during those closed sessions. Discussion and decisions in closed session is intended to protect sensitive or confidential matters from being made public. For instance, in the case of the Airport it was important to keep discussion from public disclosure in order to protect the Airport’s competitive advantages. Generally, such meetings and information are not kept from the general public because Council is hiding something. To release everything that Council does or says would actually be detrimental to the City and could give cause for claims from third parties. Governing is not as easy as many people think – there is much to be taken into account before deciding weighty matters.
Council’s main responsibility is to deal with matters of vision, policy and governance. Direction to staff comes through those policies and the Mayor carries out the direction of Council, similar to the role of a C.E.O. in a corporation. The City staff is to carry out the Council’s policies. How those policies are carried out is the responsibility of Staff. Whenever Council strays into the day to day operations of Staff, or Staff strays into the areas that are the responsibility of Council, tensions inevitably develop from blurring the lines of authority and accountability. The Mayor and the City Manager would be the two people who need to be most vigilant in recognizing when these crossovers occur in order to avoid unnecessary conflict between Council and Staff.
Most of Council’s work is not dramatic. If done well, it is demanding and takes hours of effort, careful attention to detail, research and, most important, a listening ear. While there certainly will be times of confrontational debate, some of which is behind closed doors, it is the responsibility of our elected officials to ensure that the public are as fully informed as they need to be to understand the issues facing the City. This requires discretion, integrity and wisdom. Necessary traits for anyone seeking a seat at Council table.