As published in The Erin Advocate
Establishment of a public Question Period at the start of Erin Town Council meetings is good news for local democracy.
It won’t be like Question Period in the House of Commons, where MPs can only ask questions planned by their party. In Erin, residents will be able to ask anything they want.
It will encourage people to bring up topics in public – not to embarrass staff or politicians, but to ensure that responses are heard by other members of the public and the media.
People will not have to register days in advance as a delegation or provide details about the question they intend to ask.
‘It certainly answers to the openness and transparency that we may be accused of not having,” said Mayor Al Alls. “It’s a bit of an experiment for Erin Council, but I think it’s worth trying.”
Clerk Dina Lundy suggested that Question Period be limited to 15 minutes, with a limit of 5 minutes per person for the question and response.
As the chair at Council meetings, Alls will refer the questions to councillors or staff members. If they don’t have the requested information, the answer will be provided later. “I guarantee we’ll get the answer,” said Alls.
Councillor John Brennan said any delayed answers should be available to all members of the public at the following meeting. Support for the Question Period was unanimous, so it is expected to be ratified on September 15.
This will be just one of several ways to communicate with the Town. People can still phone, email or visit the Town office to get answers from councillors or staff. The public can sit in on committee meetings and speak with politicians in person. There will still be a separate time at council meetings for delegations, in which people can make a 15-minute presentation.
The mayor liked the Question Period idea during the election campaign, but then suggested it was perhaps better to hold regular Town Hall Forum meetings. Various people have advocated a Question Period, and after talking to the mayor of Grand Valley, Alls agreed that it could work in Erin.
The Town is under no obligation to provide this opportunity, so it could easily be cancelled if it is abused.
That means we need actual questions that are of public interest and related to Town business. Questions may need a bit of background, and might imply some criticism of the Town or Council, but anyone who launches into a speech, makes offensive comments about individuals or tries to engage in debate is likely to be shut down quickly by the chair.
The exact procedure to sign up as a questioner has not been set, but Alls said his intent is to give priority to residents who have not asked a question at a recent meeting.
Meetings at 6:30 pm
Councillors also approved a new start time of 6:30 pm for evening meetings, in hopes of finishing by 10 pm. That could make it difficult for some commuters to make it to the meeting, but overall it seems a practical idea.
Clerk Dina Lundy said that trying to wrap up business by the normal 11 pm deadline “can contribute to fatigue and rushing through agenda items.”
Council will meet at 6:30 pm on the first Tuesday of the month and at 1 pm on the third Tuesday. Agendas are available in advance at erin.ca.
Special short meetings required under the Planning Act are normally scheduled before regular council meetings. Clerk Lundy suggests that incorporating them into the main meeting, as many other towns do, would be more efficient.