Chilliwack is changing the way it handles questions from the public at council meetings.
The current practice allows a maximum of two delegations per meeting to appear before council to speak for 10 minutes. Questions from the public can be asked at end of a council meeting, but only if they relate specifically to matters on the agenda.
But after staff took a look at the policies of neighbouring cities, with practices ranging from no questions at meetings, to devoting a half hour to question period, the recommendation was for council to stick with the status quo. The rationale, for keeping it to two delegations and questions at the end, was mainly that there were numerous other ways to contact city officials with questions, from community engagement meetings, to email, and more.
Coun. Sam Waddington, chair of the former Rural Issues Adisory committee, suggested that Chilliwack adopt something similar to the District of North Vancouver, with a 30-minute public input period and each speaker getting three minutes.
“I think it matters that we do it in public,” he said about council answering the tough questions from residents who attend council meetings.
Coun. Jason Lum asked if there was any latitude for accepting “items that aren’t on the agenda” or that may be considered “out of order” since sometimes a citizen will stay in chambers all night waiting to ask something, and maybe they could allow it, or a case by case basis, with a majority vote of council.
Mayor Sharon Gaetz pointed to the many opportunities already available for community engagement as underlined in the staff report. She said sometimes there isn’t a staff member present to help council answer the most technical questions.
“It’s not the aim of council to cut out discussion, but people are served more efficiently if we have time to prepare.”
Gaetz said a question period could be hijacked if it were seen as a way “for people to get in front of council to put out their platform,” particularly when in the midst of an election campaign.
Coun. Chris Kloot noted that the community engagement meetings are “not always well attended” and although he wasn’t opposed to a question period, he was hesitant to add time for questions, given that some meeting run long into the night.
Mayor Gaetz suggested if council was leaning toward making a change around question period, “I think we should do it after the election.”
Coun. Sue Attrill said she was of two minds, but she liked the idea of a set question period, which “might help more people attend” council meetings.
“I love the engagement idea. I love that part of it,” she said.
Coun. Waddington told council that he appreciated the discussion that was taking place.
If a member of the public sits through an entire council meeting waiting for the question period that takes 15 minutes at the end of the night, “I think we need to make time for it.”
Coun. Waddington urged council to try the North Van model on a “trial” basis.
“But moving forward, we need to have that piece,” he said.
Coun. Chuck Stam said he was comfortable with the current system of engagement with the delegations, and agenda-related questions at the end.
In the end, council referred the item back to staff, with the goal of bringing back an amendment to the Procedural Bylaw, following the North Van model of a public question period, for a six-month trial period. The amendment made it so that the changes would not take effect until after the election.
On the referral motion and amendment, Coun. Kloot and Coun. Stam voted against, while and Mayor Gaetz, Coun. Attrill, Coun. Lum, Coun. Popove and Coun. Waddington in favour.