Niagara-on-the-Lake town council will be sticking to its regular schedule for 2021, despite suggestions from town staff to help streamline meetings.
During the committee of the whole meeting Sept. 21, a staff report was discussed that showed councillors have spent more time in meetings than five other Niagara municipalities.
NOTL councillors spent 249 hours in session since Dec. 1, 2018, more than double Niagara Falls and Thorold, and about 100 more hours than St. Catharines and Port Colborne in the same period of time.
The report came with recommendations that council adjust its meeting schedule to try to reduce time spent, to stop delays in decisions and to save money on employee costs.
Staff suggested options that might save time, including removing committee of the whole meetings and having two council meetings per month instead.
“Staff has observed significant increase in the duration of the length of meeting times for both (committee of the whole) and council,” the report said.
“Niagara-on-the-Lake in comparison to local municipalities has spent considerably more time in meetings since taking office.”
The report said that having bi-weekly council meetings means decisions can be made more frequently.
“Therefore, if council is not prepared to make decisions on a particular item at a meeting, they have the option, as always, to defer the report to a future
meeting. The benefit of more frequent council meetings is that a deferral of a report or matter does not result in a month delay.”
The report also recommended councillors come prepared with questions and not use council time to familiarize themselves with staff reports.
“Staff have observed that (committee of the whole) meetings may be used by some members to become familiarized with the reports and use the time at meetings to ask questions of staff and gain greater clarity,” the report said.
The report also acknowledged more time has been spent at special council meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but said even without those meetings added to the total, “council is still on pace to greatly exceed the total of the past two terms of council.”
Coun. Clare Cameron didn't support changing the schedule.
“I don't see how shortening our meetings, reducing debate and comparing ourselves to other municipalities that have their very own different political culture does anything to advance our strategic goals as an organization,” she said.
“Of all the things that I'm concerned about in this town, the length of our meetings isn't something that I'm concerned about. I actually take heart in how much debate and discussion occurs.”
She said if overtime hours for staff is the main concern, she would support reevaluating when staff members need to be present for a meeting.
“Let's look at the numbers for the overtime, let's have a conversation about who is expected to attend council or committee meetings and why. And see if maybe we can reduce the number of staff that are expected to attend,” Cameron said.
Cameron said with regards to councillors coming with questions prepared, it's not always possible when information comes right before the meeting.
“We continue to receive items at the very last minute,” she said.
She said she was “very troubled” by the proposal, “especially in this community with such a high voter turnout and such engaged citizens. I want to see more public debate and more engagement rather than less.”
Craig Larmour, the town's director of community and development services, said the purpose of the report was to help in planning the 2021 council meeting schedule.
“The reason for some of these changes were just some of the observations that I've seen since this new council has taken office,” Larmour said.
“They're just suggestions on ways we can provide for more efficient use. I'm not trying to limit any discussion I'm just trying to channel it.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said it would be it would be “difficult to limit the number of staff that are required at committee of the whole and council.”
“We tried to do that when we came up with this schedule that we're meeting in now,” she said. “We tried to put all the planning into one meeting and then that way the planning staff could be there and public works doesn't have to be … but that hasn't happened because we now have planning items at the general meetings so we're still requiring everybody to be here all the time.”
Coun. Allan Bisback said he favoured finding options to streamline the meetings and he encouraged members of council to “discipline” themselves to “read the material, understand the material.”