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Meeting time slippery slope to transparency

Posted on December 6, 2017 by Taber Times

In the end, it is only a difference of 1 1/2 hours, but even the little things can be bad for optics.

Earlier council meeting times have been pushed by the last two councils, with the option finally moving forward with an unanimous motion in late November 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.

Hesitations were voiced by some on council and those hesitations are warranted given many councillors campaigned and many residents voiced their concerns about transparency during the 2017 election.

As echoed in a legal brief prepared by Marlena Paul of Brownlee LLP, every councillor is legally obligated to represent the public and to consider the well-being and interest of the municipality as a whole.

Paul’s brief suggested moving meeting start times to earlier in the day can create issues for public participation and achieving quorum.

The Times shares some on council’s frustrations with an apparent apathy towards town concerns based on attendance at open houses and council meetings, but that still does not mean taking advantage of that apathy to make one’s work day easier being warranted in the interests of transparency.

As important as a council meeting may be to a person, working and not being one’s own boss makes attendance extremely difficult for those who work 9 to 5 unless you have a very understanding employer or are willing to have wages docked.

This lessens not only the chance of attendance for the public at council meetings, but also the type of candidate a council may attract, perhaps proving as a deterrent to serve for those working full time and having young children.

It is perhaps speculative, but an example of the outcome of this might well exist in our neighbouring municipality, the M.D. of Taber, which holds its meetings during the day.

Although not entirely meant as a criticism, M.D. councillors almost to a man are representative of the agricultural community, a profession often considered to be less tied to rigid daily scheduling.

Might we not see representatives from a more varied background at the M.D. if they switched their meetings to the evening?

Some logic some councillors used for changing the meeting times we find puzzling as well.

As far as The Times knows from recent previous meetings, any full-time manager that has to attend a council meeting to lend their expertise is not afforded overtime expenses, it is part of the job, much like many full-time jobs where some overtime is expected.

And if one is preaching fiscal responsibility, it is odd that a legal opinion being wary of changing meeting times and encouraging public input is commissioned by administration at cost to the taxpayer, only to be ignored.

The move was questioned by Coun. Louie Tams if it was being considered to benefit town council members rather than the citizens of the community, as Coun. Carly Firth encouraged perhaps public consultation on the potential move.

Hearing comments during the council meeting in question like ‘we have to think of our employees’ and ‘they all have families, we all have families’ does not quell that concern in the motivations behind the move.

To be honest, it will certainly make our town council reporter’s job easier who has started his day at 8:30 a.m., but easiest isn’t always best in accessibility to democracy by the public.

In the interests of democracy, the first thing council should be thinking of is not its paid employees or councillors themselves, but the public which it serves, which is why they have jobs in the first place.

It is the same thought pattern for many who choose to serve the Taber area and who sacrifice their personal lives at no cost to the public, be it a volunteer sports coach, a member of a community club (i.e. Kinsmen) or simply someone donating their elbow grease to make Taber a better place to live in — they know what they signed up for, and do so in service of the community that has given them so much as well.

To council’s credit, they will be earmarking their delegations to after-work hours to encourage participation that way. But council seem to be going in the opposite direction overall with other smaller municipalities who have started moving their meetings from the day into the evening, as noted by the legal brief of Brownlee LLP.

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