Commentary

Restoring the Rules of Order in a Time of Procedural Chaos

At the literal end of the day, we cannot expect beleaguered and exhausted councillors who have been put through marathon meetings, week after week, to have the ability to work together and to make good, clear, and effective decisions.

By Cameron Kroetsch
Published April 25, 2017

I feel compelled to speak out about the marathon meeting that was held by the General Issues Committee (GIC) on April 19, 2017, and specifically what I perceive are some serious problems with that committee's understanding of how to make decisions, gather information, chair meetings, and follow their own rules of order.

As a volunteer, labour advocate, and member of two Boards of Directors for non-profit groups in the city, I have a deep respect and understanding for rules of order, codes of conduct, bylaws, and democratic decision-making. I've sat on many committees reviewing bylaws, policies, and rules of order, and I've chaired more meetings than I care to remember so I've seen this tedious stuff up close and have a respect for its influence and importance.

I'm not saying this because I'm always civil or polite or because I believe in an obedient rule-based approach to life (or in every meeting, for that matter), but I do think that, in the context of making decisions in a municipality like Hamilton, rules of order are necessary.

They're the formal building blocks upon which democratic decisions are made by representatives elected to municipal government and they ensure that everyone has the right to participate equally.

Rules of Order and the Motion

Council and committee meeting rules of order are laid out in "City of Hamilton By-law No. 14-300" entitled "A By-law to Govern the Proceedings of Council and Committees of Council". It's sort of straightforward and to the point: these are the rules of order for Council and committee meetings.

They're average in length, reasonable in scope, present information on many of the situations that our Council might encounter, and where silent or unclear they defer to a more formal document - in this case, Bourinot's Rules of Order. This is, in my experience, what many rules of order are like.

The heart of these rules of order, as with any other, is the basic tool for decision-making that many people know well: the motion. A motion starts with an idea that is crafted into a clear sentence or two. That motion is put forward to a group of people to review in advance, so that they can approve it by voting, and so that it can be turned into an actionable decision.

Generally speaking, a motion is what starts the discussion around a decision, not something that happens after the discussion has already taken place.

I preface with this detail because there was no motion on the agenda for the April 19, 2017 GIC meeting regarding an Environmental Assessment at all. It was, however, clear to me from social and local media that councillors expected there to be a vote on a motion at the end of that GIC meeting to approve the addendum to the EA.

Its absence from the agenda as a motion was a bit surprising, given that this was a decision expected well in advance of the meeting. If councillors had an idea how the rules of order should work, no one should have expected the GIC to be voting on the EA.

Delegations and chairs

As bylaw 14-300 (3.8) says, delegations cannot happen at a Council meeting. So, logically, the only place that these delegations can take place is at a committee meeting.

If the GIC just wanted to set up some reasonable amount of time to hear from delegations in order to gather information then they should have done that and been clear about what they were doing (at least to one another if not residents in general). The GIC has the right to do that as a committee and that seems like a generally useful thing that a committee could do.

I'll pause to say that this is useful only insofar as delegations don't start to resemble a never ending Parks & Recreation style free-for-all. Committees should have the right to set limits on the number of delegations (as long as there are good, clear, rules that allow for the equitable distribution of delegations) and chairs should know the rules of order and how to properly run a meeting.

A chair needs that confidence to be able to keep things in order and to be able to interpret the rules. The chair of the April 19, 2017 GIC meeting did an abysmal job. As with a motion, delegations on a specific topic need to be restricted to that topic alone.

If there is a vote scheduled on an Environmental Assessment, the delegations to the committee should be about that specific thing. It shouldn't be that the subject of a delegation is an endless nonsensical discussion between councillors and delegates with ridiculous stories about awnings and bizarre correlations between those awnings and heritage properties (as was the case at this meeting).

This is also not an opportunity to debate delegates at length. Delegates are guests, have no voting rights, and are entitled to speak as part of a delegation (read: presentation) and only allowed to say more if asked a question directly by a member of a governing body (read: councillor).

The decision-makers, supposedly councillors in this context, are there to gather information which will help them to make a decision. It's not an opportunity for councillors to attempt to make a point by asking delegates if they "agree" with their assertions, to publicly grandstand, or to bolster their own positions - and this goes for councillors on both sides of a vote.

All the power to prevent this nonsense rests with the chair, who has the sole right, at times, to interpret the rules of order. Council and committees should always keep this in mind when an alternate chair is chosen: this person has a lot of power to control a meeting and the outcomes of decisions.

And, as councillors should know, the right to chair the GIC is not necessarily vested with the Mayor or Deputy Mayor. As the City of Hamilton's website clearly states: "Chair of General Issues Committee to be rotated amongst the Deputy Mayors, all Members of Council". This at least allows any councillor to make the argument that they would have the right to chair a GIC meeting, especially if they have not done so recently.

Why does any of this matter?

This matters because there needs to be a clear separation between information-gathering and decision-making in this city. The only way that thoughtful decisions can be made is if the information that people gather can be reflected upon before they make a decision.

While the decisions that a city makes are vitally important to its residents, they're not quick life-and-death emergency situations and we shouldn't treat them as if they are.

In the context of LRT, this decision has been slowly proceeding in one direction for about a decade.

There's no reason now to push the panic button and hold ridiculous, disrespectful, soul-crushing marathon meetings which only ensure that the other important work that this city needs to do will be attended too either poorly or in the embattled context of the LRT debacle.

This has already been demonstrated by comments the week after the meeting where councillors asked staff to try to keep emails to a minimum so that they could deal with LRT-related email floods in their inboxes.

How could this all have been avoided?

This could have been simply and easily avoided by the GIC referring a motion to council weeks or months ago, thereby negating the need to attempt to hold a vote at the April 19, 2017 GIC that inevitably set residents up for another disappointing (and confusing) deferral.

The GIC could have taken as many delegations as it wanted (weeks or months ago) instead of on the apparent eve of a major decision that was never even on the agenda in the first place.

The meeting could also have been given start and end times. Every meeting I've ever run or attended that was following bona fide rules of order had a start and an end time. Meetings should not be allowed to run on ad nauseam just because there is a desire to give every single person a chance to speak.

I respect the idea that everyone deserves to have their voice heard and their feedback considered, but this cannot also mean there should be the ability to endlessly filibuster for the sake of completeness. There are many ways for residents to submit their views in a timely manner ahead of a vote.

What's next?

At some point, the public has to be able to let their elected representatives vote and make the decisions that they're empowered to make, whether they like those decisions or not.

When it comes time to sit and debate and approve a decision, it has to be done in a way that preserves the sanity of the representatives charged with making those decisions. (And the responsibility of any additional sanity preservation usually rests with the chair.)

As we saw, clearly, neither the Mayor nor the Deputy Mayor, who ended up in several ridiculous squabbles during this meeting (at least one of which was completely out of order), understand either the rules of order or how to apply them.

What's obvious instead is that many on Council have become proficient in what I call the cultural rules of order that the city uses and that have become an informal and comfortable shortcut to democratic decision-making.

At the literal end of the day, as many of us witnessed, we cannot expect beleaguered and exhausted councillors who have been put through marathon meetings, week after week, to have the ability to work together and to make good, clear, and effective decisions. Exhaustion, mental fatigue, and frustration all completely destroy what otherwise could be productive meetings with some measure of decorum and thoughtful decision making.

I have noticed a cult of heroism that has sprung up (or maybe it's always been there) around the practice of attending (virtually or in person) these civic sagas. Councillors, the media, and others routinely praise one another for the flagellating endurance required to attend these command performances.

The chairs of these meetings, especially the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, seem to think that they're doing the city a favour by insisting on this arcanity.

If one councillor, or a handful, could reinvest themselves in a democratic mode of conduct, read Bourinot's Rules of Order, or hire an impartial professional chair for council meetings, we might finally get on with a few things in Hamilton and stop being the laughingstock of municipal politics in this province.

I write all of this to say: councillors, please stand up for yourselves and insist that the rules of order are followed (and ultimately revised). Challenge the chair, call the question, call a point of order, defer and table votes when it's good to do so, but by all means do something. You're allowing this to happen. You act out in frustration as if your only mode of protest is to throw your hands up in the air in disgust.

I ask you to imagine how the genuinely disempowered public feels. The truth is that, for the time being, only you have the power to change this situation for the better. We've elected you to this Council, which means that it's your Council and only you have the authority to do something to prevent this farce from continuing to be the norm.

Cameron Kroetsch moved to Hamilton in 2014. He's a labour relations professional, sometimes writer, and a passionate non-profit sector volunteer who cares about democracy in government and community advocacy.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 25, 2017 at 11:12:04

I do actually think the "cultural rules" are very important as well as the formal rules of procedure such as the Procedural By-Law (which is very incomplete in my view, and leads to some of these issues being exacerbated). But getting them right involves this kind of clear and oriented thinking. Thanks Cameron.

The key takeaway is that long, punishing meetings are death to both the esprit de corps of a board and to the cohesion of its decisionmaking. In this you couldn't be more correct.

I'll try replying later on some of the specific suggestions. Thanks for getting this discussion started!

Craig Burley

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By sparrowswain (registered) | Posted April 25, 2017 at 11:59:13 in reply to Comment 121349

I guess my issue with these specific "cultural" rules is one of power. To whom are these rules important, and why? Who controls how they work and who gets to subvert them (and how)?

In my experience, actual motions (not disguised as something else), allow a broader participation by those who don't know the "cultural" rules and who can't possibly have access to them without a considerable amount of "buy-in" (read: attending a ton of meetings or being a councillor).

Following the "actual" rules of order means that everyone is on the same level playing field, democratically speaking, and has a chance to come to a meeting with the same set of rules in mind. It also means that when a motion is put forward everyone certainly knows that there will be a vote. With these other things: who can tell? And, in order to vote (i.e. make a decision), it's important to have advance notice so that you can come prepared.

With publicly available rules of order there's at least some chance that they can be enforced but there's virtually no chance of really enforcing unwritten rules. If these unwritten rules are important, as you suggest they may be in this case, to running an organization then they should be written down and made a formal part of the published rules of order. To do anything else suggests, to me at least, that they're a mechanism used by those "in the know" to subvert democracy.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 25, 2017 at 12:46:09 in reply to Comment 121352

Correct. The insidious nature of our "go along to get along" political culture is that it becomes exclusionary, and impossible to navigate for citizens. This is both dumb and wrong as a way to run a board, let alone a city.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 25, 2017 at 11:18:10

Also, the specific agenda item regarding EPR Addendum approval was item 8.2 of the agenda, listed as a discussion item.

I know the Clerk didn't record the delegations as speaking to this issue (even though I specifically requested it for mine, for example) but there was an item on the agenda although not a motion per se. Everyone knew the substance of the motion to be proposed; that's another example of "cultural rules" I guess.

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By sparrowswain (registered) | Posted April 25, 2017 at 12:01:19 in reply to Comment 121351

I think the problem here is that a motion cannot exist in a purely substantial form and not as the outcome of a "discussion" if Council is going to follow their rules of order (even though they are in need of revision). It needs to be written down and shared, in advance, so that people can come to a meeting and know exactly what they are voting about.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 25, 2017 at 12:50:41 in reply to Comment 121353

This relates back to something about this current situation that is infuriating to so many: the hijacking of a piece of anodyne, contractually obligated administrative action (the sending of the EPR Addendum to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change) into some sort of flag-waving referendum on Whether We Abjure The LRT And All Its Works.

The manipulation of ordinary, routine work into political slapfights destroys whatever faith the public has that these folks might do their jobs, or indeed know how to do their jobs. It makes us believe that all they want to do is talk, rather than work.

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