December 24, 2014

Afternoon council meetings, and “no surprises”

As published in The Erin Advocate

In an effort to save money and improve efficiency, Erin Town Council plans to hold the second of its two monthly meetings in the afternoon. Council endorsed the idea at its December 16 meeting, but it won’t affect the meeting schedule until February.

Council also approved a recommendation from Clerk Dina Lundy to change the procedure bylaw, so that council rules would prohibit new business being added to the agenda at the beginning of a meeting.

“In keeping with best practices of no surprises, and accountability and transparency, no new items should be added to the agenda without proper notice to the public and other Council members,” said Lundy in a report to council.

Council agendas are normally published on the Town website on the Friday prior to a meeting, providing an opportunity to consider the recommendations and read the background material. Council would still have the authority to add an urgent matter to the agenda at the start of a meeting, but they would have to vote to suspend the provisions of the procedure bylaw.

On the issue of afternoon meetings, council expects to pass a bylaw at its next evening meeting (January 20) to authorize a council meeting to be held at 1 pm on the third Tuesday of each month.

Lundy said the average staff cost for each evening meeting in 2014 was about $1,155, since staff members receive overtime pay when they are required to attend. There were also 14 extra meetings in 2014, with average extra pay totalling $315 for councillors and $1,751 for staff, per meeting.

In 2014, there were a total of 36 evening meetings, with compensation costs totalling $49,945 (not including benefits).

There has also been concern about the length of meetings, which have often gone past the 11 pm curfew. Part of the problem is the length of time needed for delegations, normally limited to three and officially restricted to 15 minutes each, but often taking much longer. Some of these delegations are consultants hired by council, with complex issues to report and many questions being asked.

“A majority of these extra costs can be avoided by incorporating one regular daytime meeting per month, as well as scheduling some of the special meetings during the day,” said Lundy.

The measure would provide greater efficiency, since staff members often have to sit idle at a meeting until their report or issue comes up on the agenda. A daytime meeting would allow them to be called in only when needed. Lundy noted that there would be other savings outside the Town, since many of the presenters are public employees from other levels of government.

She agreed with a suggestion by Councillor Jeff Duncan that when possible, less controversial issues be planned for the afternoon sessions, since the public would expect “barnburner issues” to be dealt with at an evening meeting.

Wellington County holds most of its council and committee meetings during the day, and the Townships of Puslinch, Mapleton and Minto each hold one regular daytime meeting per month.