By Trevor Busch
The scheduled start time of Town of Taber council meetings has been advanced to 3:30 p.m. following a unanimous resolution by town council.
Under the town’s original bylaw, meeting times were previously scheduled for 5 p.m., and have traditionally been held at that time in the past.
“In my opinion, the earlier the better, just to free up staff time and prevent overtime to the town staff,” said Coun. Jack Brewin during town council’s Nov. 27 regular meeting. “I’m fairly open, and the more we could get done during the day would be much more productive in my mind.”
At their Oct. 23 regular meeting, town council had directed administration to review the possibility of changing council’s scheduled meeting starts, and administration had expressed an intention to seek legal advice on that issue.
In a legal brief prepared by Marlena Paul of Brownlee LLP which was included as part of town council’s information package, it was noted that there are no legal restrictions in place under the MGA or its regulations regarding when regular council meetings may be scheduled, but that revising the start time to earlier in the day raises some potential concerns nonetheless.
“We wish to emphasize that by nature, every councillor is legally obligated to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interest of the municipality as a whole,” reads Paul’s brief. “In this context, we caution that revising the start time of regular council meetings may cause certain practical issues that are not in the best interests of the town.”
Noting that certain participatory rights are guaranteed by statute, Paul’s brief suggested that moving meeting start times to earlier in the day can create issues for public participation and achieving quorum.
“Moving regular council meetings to the early afternoon on a weekday may greatly impact the ability of the public to participate in council meetings… (and creating) a situation where, on a regular basis, quorum is not easily established, is not in the best interests of the town.”
Town council meetings are often held in the evening in smaller municipalities in the province in order to accommodate the schedule of elected officials who are often employed in other occupations during regular daytime hours.
“Personally, for me, earlier is better, but the more I’ve thought about it for delegations and members of the public that would like to attend meetings, I think that moving it to earlier in the day might deter people if they have to take time away from their jobs in order to be here,” said Coun. Carly Firth. “So I don’t know if it’s a good idea to move it.”
In late November 2016, former Mayor Henk DeVlieger had also floated the idea of changing town council meetings from their traditional 5 p.m. start to the early afternoon, but was unable to secure support from previous council when he called for a motion on the idea.
“I do agree with Councillor Firth that I hope it doesn’t inhibit delegations or the public from attending council meetings,” said Coun. Garth Bekkering. “I think an hour doesn’t make a big difference, but if we were to go another hour, it might be problematic in that regard.”
In neighbouring municipalities, most regular council meetings are also held in the evening, such as the Town of Vauxhall (6 p.m. start time), or Village of Barnwell (6 p.m. start time). The notable exception is the M.D. of Taber, which holds council meetings during the day on Tuesdays (9 a.m. start time).
“Recently, a handful of municipalities in Alberta that had their regular council meetings scheduled in the early morning or afternoon made the decision to move their meetings to the evening on a weekday because of the above concerns,” said Paul in her legal brief. “Therefore, although not a legal requirement, we strongly recommend that council consider the above practical concerns before making a decision to change the start time of regular council meetings.”
Coun. Louie Tams openly questioned if the move was being considered to benefit town council members rather than the citizens of the community.
“Three o’clock I think is going to be too early. I share the same concerns as Councillor Firth. Are we doing this for our benefit as a council, and for our employees’ benefit, at the expense of having delegations and people being able to attend? And yet I still feel that one hour will be beneficial for our staff and others involved.”
Arguing that citizens of the community appear to be politically apathetic toward town concerns based on a lack of attendance at council meetings, Coun. Joe Strojwas pushed for an earlier meeting time.
“I concur as well, but a 3 p.m. start time, there’s not too many council meetings that go for less than two hours, and so from 3 p.m. we’re going to be here at 5 p.m. anyway, so to schedule our delegations around 5 p.m. when most people are finished their work, I don’t foresee it being a problem for people attending. You look around the audience here, and most days — other than delegations — people don’t just come to sit here and listen. The town has got to move forward and be more efficient, we’ve got to think about our employees and the cost to the town. They all have families, we all have families, and some of our meetings in the past went to 10 p.m. at night and later. Delegations can be re-worked, and the start time could be moved up, even if its moved to 3:30 p.m. That hour and half to 5 p.m. should give us ample time to cover delegations and get all our employees home earlier, and safe and sound.”
Coun. Mark Garner was dismissive of concerns regarding public attendance.
“My life experience is that if it’s important to you, you will find time for it, or make time for it. I fully think that a 3 p.m. start time and putting delegations toward the latter part of the meeting, would be just fine. I think it would be a good compromise.”
Mayor Andrew Prokop was also in favour of an earlier start time.
“Overall, I feel earlier is better no matter what we go with.”
CAO Cory Armfelt suggested that in his investigations, an earlier meeting time might actually generate increased attendance at meetings.
“There’s some anecdotal evidence that might suggest that having your meetings earlier in the day would actually increase the complement of residents coming to your meetings.”
In Brownlee LLP’s brief, it was also strongly suggested that the town seek the input of the public before moving forward.
“We also recommend that council canvass the public for their input before voting on amending the organizational bylaw in this way. Now more than ever, councils need to be open and transparent and actively listen to all stakeholders before making certain decisions. If the public is not properly consulted, it is possible that steps may be taken to petition council to amend or repeal the organizational bylaw.”
Firth suggested the possibility of an online survey or other means of gathering consensus from the public on the issue before a decision was made.
“Would it be possible to ask the public what they think?”
The idea was met by a stone wall of opposition from the rest of council, however.
“As one who attended probably 80 per cent of these meetings last year, very rarely were there people here other than myself,” said Garner. “To return to what I said earlier, if it’s important for people, they will make time to be here. I think that most people in the community know that they are welcome here. I don’t know that it’s a hidden secret that we meet on Mondays. People know that, they’ve know that for years and years in this community. They choose not to be here, whereas if it’s important to you, you will choose to be here, is my experience.”
Prokop pointed out that previous attempts at gauging the public’s opinion had resulted in failure.
“In the past with any survey we’ve done we’re lucky to get 10 to 15 per cent participation.”
Brewin weighed in, expressing disdain for the accuracy of online surveys.
“Personally, I’m not in favour of online polls, because everyone and their dog can vote on them, so it doesn’t really have much merit.”
Following discussion, council voted unanimously to pass third and final reading of Council Procedural Bylaw 12-2017, changing the regular meeting time from 5 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Coun. Jack Brewin was absent, but participated in the proceedings via teleconference call.
In a follow-up motion, council voted unanimously to re-schedule delegations at future meetings to commence as close to 5 p.m. as possible.
Town council meetings are held on the second and fourth Mondays of each month, except for July, August and December, where a single meeting is held on the third Monday.