Decorum in City Council

I mentioned earlier that Mayor Don Atchison and some other councillors don’t think that Twitter should be used in City Council.  Darren Hill is the only frequent Twitter user in Council and by frequent, I mean probably three tweets in a four meeting month.  In Hill’s defense, he says that he does it to correct false statements or misinformation.  A look back at some tweets he has sent out, not only is he right but often I am the one that is spreading false information… I got the name of the city administrator reading a report wrong and was quickly corrected.

This has had a weird impact on council in that Hill is one of the reasons why people care more about city politics than ever before (I’ll also give credit to Charlie Clark, Mairin Loewen, Sean Shaw and his blog, Dave Hutton and his live tweeting Council meetings) because we can interact with them.  What happened was that people (and our smartphones) started to show up at Saskatoon City Council meetings and we interact with each other and those at home, and even councillors in other cities who are following the action using the #yxecc hashtag.  At the FCM meetings, I was told by several city councillors from all over they love the actions on the #yxecc hashtag on Monday nights (often during their own council meetings) and want to know how to get that kind of civic involvement in their city.

Councillor do follow along.  I have been given the slow glare by more than one councillor after disagreeing with them as they check Twitter on their phone discreetly.  Is that kind of behaviour appropriate for an elected official?  Let me describe for you the kind of behaviour one sees at City Council. 

  • During the budget review process, at least two and probably three nodded off during the deliberations.  At least once a month, someone has taken a nap for a couple of moments.  If they weren’t technically asleep, they were pretty close.  I can tell when it is after 9:30 as one of the other councillors gets cranky after that hour.
  • Cosmo Industries showed a music video/song that they had made to guilt councillors into voting their way and instead of calling them out for it for a grotesquely manipulative act, they fell over telling Cosmo how great they were.
  • Councillors lecture each other, voters, and city administration for extended periods of time, often in the identical way that the previous speaker had just lectured someone and it keeps going on and on some meetings.  Everyone knows this is just political posturing and is contributing nothing to the debate.  Sometimes this is contrary to statements given at previous meetings or even earlier in the meeting.  It’s horrible.  Of course some of these talks are all about building up their perceived electoral base.  It has nothing to do with the current debate but one persons politics and it takes up a lot of time.  It is painful for me to listen to, I can’t imagine what it is like  for other councillors.
  • One councillor is consistently unprepared, hasn’t read the council package, and looks to others (generally the mayor) on how to vote.  That doesn’t stop that councillor from speaking for extended periods of time on topics the councillor doesn’t understand.  What frustrates me is that they are paid to be prepared.  I don’t get paid to attend those meetings and I read the council package.  Why can’t councillors?  Oh never mind, we know the answer.
  • The administration reports to council are often interesting but I see many of them before hand.  If I see them, I am assuming that most councillors do as well (that being said, not always) and have a copy of it in their council package.  While it’s always fun to hear from administration, how much attention does it take to hear the same report at least twice.  Oh yeah it’s also on PowerPoint so you can get to hear the administrator read you the report.

Not to go all John Turner on you and say that television has destroyed democracy but that is the main reason why the speeches can be so long and at times the behaviour can be brutal.  It is a partisan place, probably more so now that previously with quips and shots being taken.  I can’t see City Council meetings being a rewarding experience for anyone.

Before I go any further, some of the councillors are really earnest who really speak passionately on topics that may be unpopular.  After one meeting I asked a councillor if there was a plan behind alienating himself from an entire neighbourhood that was outside of his ward.  There wasn’t, he just thought they deserved an explanation for his vote.  I was actually inspired.  Other councillors pick their battles very carefully.  While some come unprepared, others know the package inside and out. (I have jokingly chided Mairin Loewen on Twitter [whose laptop screen faces where I often sit] for paying too close of attention.  That can’t be good for her).

In the end City Council is not a professional group of administrators or board members.  They are politicians and too many politicians are out to their own self-interests (mainly re-election).  If I was going to tackle any problem with council (other than the councillors who are just mailing in their votes and debate are replaced), I would:

  • Greatly limit PowerPoint and media (and no Keynote won’t make it better)  Limit media to drawings and maps.  The rest can be posted to the website.  No music videos.
  • It’s impossible to police but make it clear that political posturing speeches have be kept short.
  • Go to blind voting.  We have these big debates and you have a couple of councillors who are looking around at others on how to vote.  Really?  If you are going to vote together and you can’t even plan that out before hand, you deserve to lose more votes.
  • Come up with with some rules for technology.  Former NDP MLA Hon. Pat Atkinson used to tweet Question Period.  It was loved by both sides of the debate and it opened up the legislature in ways that we hadn’t seen before.  Technology is good and if council members can multi-task and if it doesn’t distract others, good for them.
  • Let coffee into council chambers.  The water looks really dignified but those meetings are two and three hours.  If it keeps council members awake, it’s a good step.  I also suggest cookies and snacks.  If a little bit of caffeine helps foster a more articulate debate, do it.
  • Stop with the partisan crap.  We have right wing candidates pooling their resources for a call centre (but we aren’t a slate) and coordinating some of their campaigns.  You have councillors advising candidates all in favour of more councillors of a particular worldview.  Is this really where we want to go?  What happened to the idea where wards elected candidates that are best suited to represent their interests.  We are getting close to having the choice between two candidates and what they want to do.  It’s a big change and one that we will regret as a city.  I don’t really care if my councillor is right, left, or centre.  I want one that listens and is for what is in the best interests for my ward.  We are on the brink of losing that if the slate idea keeps building.
  • Of course the incumbents looking after their own electoral interests in excluding old lawn signs (the biggest expense in most civic campaigns) from election spending while making their challengers expense their signs is a joke.  I am glad there is a movement to change this (and credit needs to be given to Charlie Clark and Mairin Loewen for leading this charge previously and in the present).
  • Encourage Hill and others to tweet as they see fit.  It opens up City Hall and City Council meetings.  It encourages citizen participation.  I hear more about Calgary from @nenshi’s Twitter feed than from many other sources.  Who cared about Newark, New Jersey until Mayor Cory Booker started to tweet at @corybooker (and saved some people from burning buildings).  City Council does some a horrible job in communicating as a group, they need any help they can get.  As for the Mayor’s suggestion of a big screen with Tweets go, I am both in favour of it won’t stop trying to hack into it until I take it over one meeting.  Seriously if he was going to do it, stream the #yxecc tag with users that have to sign up each meeting.  I would love to see Mike San Miguel’s, Darren Hill’s, my own, Jeff Jackson, and other tweets as we went along.  I can’t imagine how big a distraction it would be to council but I think we have established that they don’t always pay attention.

So just like politicians everywhere, instead of focusing on the real issue, they are focusing on smartphones and Twitter.  I think it comes from not being able to see the forest through the trees.

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