Tough getting heard at city hall when the mics dont work. Learning how to manage agendas is also a skill that needs to be acquired.

November 15, 2013

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON It was not their finest hour.

It was the longest Standing Committee meeting this Council has held and it significantly disrupted people who came to city hall because they were told they were going to be heard.

For reasons that are beyond most people, the Clerk’s office decided to hold a public meeting and then put three items that were contentious on the Standing Committee agenda that followed and then they tacked on a Special Meeting of Council.  It was to be a disaster from the start.

We look good but inside we come across as a bit of a hick town.

Councillor Taylor remarked that it was a very bad example of agenda management.  Part of the reason for the mess was that Council cut short their Development and Infrastructure schedule on Remembrance Day so the Mayor could spend the evening at the Legion; something that is a Burlington tradition.  Time well spent,  but that decision backed up things and resulted with the mess Council faced during  the five-hour meeting  – straight with no breaks – while they listened to ten delegations on the VR-Pro Half Chili marathon that takes over Lakeshore Road one day every year.

Delegations from Diane and Nicholas Leblovic set the theme – they felt there are other places the Marathon,  that draws 5,000 people with projections to rise to 6,000, could be held and they had a petition with 150 names on it supporting a move to another location.  The Leblovic’s went further and drew out three routes that might be considered.  They just want the event off Lakeshore Road so that they don’t have to deal with the inconvenience of not being able to get out of the streets they live on and onto Lakeshore Road.

Before the Leblovic’s got their kick at the cat Colin Cameron, pastor at Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church gave his take on it all which was if you can’t beat them – then join them. Pastor Cameron gave one of the funnier delegations and for a time had them laughing in their seats as he explained how he stands in the middle of Lakeshore Road giving blessings and handing out fresh fruit to runners as they make the return portion of the marathon.

With the Public Meeting at the front of the agenda for the evening, and then the Half Chili Marathon discussions, there wasn’t time for the delegation BurlingtonGreen wanted to make nor was their time for those who wanted to delegate on the Ghent Avenue development that is due to be heard by the Ontario Municipal Board at a hearing November 26th.

Allison Thornton finally got to the podium well past the time that Council normally adjourns and announced that she could not give her delegation because the batteries on her iPad had died. “I have been sitting here for more than three hours waiting to speak”, she said.

As the evening progressed – and progress is loosely used here – tempers began to flare.  Council Taylor had a number of concerns that he felt were not being addressed.  Taylor, who tends at times to be emotional, doesn’t  function all that well at meetings that run late – and this was a meeting that was running very late.

Chaired by Councillor Sharman – it was a meeting that just didn’t work. 

City Clerk Angela Morgan

The running of council meetings is the responsibility of the Clerk’s Office.  The General Manger overseeing this meeting was Kim Phillips who earlier in her career was once the City Clerk.  The city has staff with the experience to know how to run a meeting – for some reason none of that experience was brought to bear on the Council that met Wednesday the 13th of November.

To add to the dysfunction of the meeting, everyone had to use a microphone system that no longer works.  Many of the speakers could not be heard.  The microphone at the podium is not the right size and people who are tall have to lean into the podium and bend down to be heard while those who are short have to stand on their tip toes to get close enough to the microphone.

Kelly Arnott isn’t the tallest person to begin with. She had to stand on her tip toes throughout her delegation in order to be able to reach the microphone

Kelly Arnott of VR Pro, the people who run the Chili Half Marathon , was on her toes much of her delegation.

It gets worse.  When people at the horseshoe want to speak they have to press a button on their microphones.  When they do that a red light flicks on.  All too often speakers forget to press the button when they have finished speaking which prevents anyone else from opening up their microphone.  Committee Clerks have a small sign that they hold up and wave to the person at the horse show who has left their microphone on.

It is both funny and embarrassing.  Professional people who attend Burlington Standing Committee meetings to make delegations must leave city hall wondering why we provide facilities that are just so lousy.  This is not a new problem; the microphones have never worked properly in the three years I have covered this council.

It is a totally unacceptable situation.  The Clerk surely has the budget and the authority to have the right kind of equipment installed.

Will Council members be issued megaphones until the speaker system in the Council Chamber is fixed.

Or are we going to have a situation where everyone at the horseshoe is given a megaphone and delegations get given one as well so that everyone can hear each other.

In Burlington we sing the O’Canada at the beginning of each Council meeting.  A recording is played, everyone stands and the anthem is sung.

Well they try,  Few voices are raised, often because the recoding that is used is a rendition people are not comfortable with or the equipment that plays the recording  doesn’t work and the sound comes out as wobbly.  Hard to describe – but just such poor form.  To add insult to injury the Council meetings are broadcast live on Cogeco cable television.  We come across looking like such a bunch of hicks.

With the meeting over people headed home.  The city planner lives in St. Catharines, the city solicitor lives in Niagara – both had a bit of a drive – and both would be at their desks on time the next day.  We human beings do not function at our best with hours like this.  Agenda management needs a re-think.

The city is planning on reducing the number of Standing Committees from the current three to two – Budget and Corporate is apparently to be merged with Community Services – which will mean even longer agendas.  Does that mean even more dysfunction?  Or does the city want to get out of public meetings and shove everything onto the internet?

Stand By says the city motto – for how long one might ask?

The Clerk needs to read the Municipal Act to assure herself that she has the authority to do something then she has to read the riot act to the people at city hall who have let this situation arise and continue to take place.

Failing that – watch for a tender asking someone to supply the city with a couple of dozen megaphones – something with the corporate crest on it perhaps.  The city motto is Stand By.

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4 comments to Tough getting heard at city hall when the mics dont work. Learning how to manage agendas is also a skill that needs to be acquired.

  • John Dayaram

    How long have they been there for? Are these relatively new additions to Clerks?

  • John Dayaram

    Are the clerks in that office educated enough to be in their positions? Looking at the current posting for Manager, Committee Services – seems like high school is enough to be in that department.
    Editors note: Two of the Clerk’s that serve at the Standing Committee level happen to have Masters level degrees.

  • mary Bozelli

    Brian – your comments sparing staff isnt going to ensure they vote for you.
    Staff are paid handsomely to do their jobs (much higher than the average private sector salary). They should be both competent and professional.
    Burlingtonians deserve nothing less.

  • Sounds to me like the local media also got a bit cranky and sore for having to endure the meeting!

    Like many, I believe a meeting starts to lose focus and effectiveness if it goes beyond even 45-60 straight minutes.

    Your comments about the communications system, and really the entire “delegations” format, suggest a re-think is in order. An integral part of good governance is not only doing it, but for people to see – and hear – that you’re doing it.

    Let’s hope a better system is in Burlington’s near future. But not one with megaphones or tin cans with strings.

    Editors note:
    Tin cans with string. Might be worth considering.
    It would be useful and a public service were this community to begin thinking aloud on how the process we have can be improved. It’s really a Community Engagement issue but the Engagement Charter is being held hostage at city hall. Time for a William Lyon McKenzie committee to storm city hall and rescue the document.