Categories: Community engagement

10 minutes stays: A victory for the public, by the public

John Searles representing the city’s Charter Action Team advocated keeping public speaking time to 10 minutes.

After residents pushed back, council voted 6-1 to keep delegation speaking time at committee meetings to 10 minutes. A sub-committee of council including the Ward 1, 3, and 6 councillors proposed to reduce committee speaking time to five minutes as part of an update to the procedure bylaw that included a number of other changes.

At committee, changes to the procedure bylaw including reduced speaking time were approved 5-1, with one member absent. I did not support the procedure bylaw as a whole with the reduced time included. An earlier motion by the Ward 4 councillor to keep the 10 minutes failed 3-3 (with myself and the mayor in support).

When the matter came to council for approval Nov. 28, myself and the Ward 4 councillor proposed the speaking time be retained at 10 minutes. Council approved keeping 10 minutes on a 6-1 vote, with the Ward 1 councillor opposed.

Resident input at that council meeting made all the difference.

John Searles representing the Burlington Charter Action Team, which is tasked with upholding the city’s Community Engagement Charter, stated: “If you cut the time, it flies directly in the face of the Charter and everything we have been trying to do for the last three years, five in some cases.”

Doug  Brown, a member of the Shape Burlington Committee on Citizen Engagement which created the Charter, said he was “disappointed that council is considering a measure that would make it more difficult for citizens to fully describe their concerns on city issues.” Reducing speaking time from 10 to five minutes would, he said, send “the wrong message to the community on council’s willingness to listen to citizen concerns at committee meetings.”

Gareth Williams spoke to the item representing the citizen’s Burlington Sustainable Development Committee. “It was pretty much unanimous among the membership that we felt that we talk about a lot of complex issues ….we didn’t agree with that recommendation to lower it from 10 minutes to five.”

Resident Tom Muir provided written correspondence and appeared as a delegation at council. Delegations are really the only time that the public gets to speak to all of council and staff at once, on items important to us all, he noted.

“This Council is not your Council; it is the people’s Council. And these Council Chambers are not your Chambers, but are equally the people’s Chambers. All the Councillors and Councils hold these offices and chambers in trust.

“So a vote to reduce the people’s time to speak in these chambers is to fail in that trust, in my opinion. I ask therefore, herein fail not.”

Mark McGuire  and David Vandenberg, speaking as “millennials for Town Hall democracy” provided written correspondence to council stating the proposed reduction in speaking time was “anti-democratic.”

“Essential to a modern democratic process is the ability of the governing members to offer ample time for discussion to ensure clarity in their decision making process when a citizen delegates on matters they hold dear….We expect our councillors whom we elected to listen to what we have to say, which may not be effectively translated in five minutes.”

McGuire and Vandenberg stated that a reduction in speaking time from 10 minutes to five “would result in a reductionist approach to understanding critical issues facing citizens within Burlington, and reducing the importance of delegating.”

Resident Jim Young also advocated to keep speaking time to 10 minutes, noting that if resident input slows down decision-making, that is democracy, as “messy and frustrating” as it may be. “Democracy is indeed frustrating and the temptation to limit those small interferences, those small interruptions is great.

“When you deny constituents the reasonable opportunity to advise you during council term at meetings such as this, you leave them no other option but to voice their frustrations through the ballot box at election time.”

Such elections give rise, said Young, to the “Fords, Trumps and the Brexiteers who, bereft of policy of vision or even civil discourse, at least to pretend to listen, pretend they will be the voice of the people. Then proceed to undo all the good that has been done, the community that has been built by that slow and frustrating democratic process.”

See my earlier article on the proposed changes here: Public input to be cut in half; My Take: It’s anti-democratic. Council vote Nov. 28

My Take: The vote to keep public delegation speaking time at 10 minutes is a victory for public input, by the public. I believe the vote would not have changed between committee and council without the input of the public, both written and importantly in person as delegations at the council meeting.

The vote also shows the importance of elected officials not only listening to residents, but actually collaborating with residents in decision-making. That means a few things; first, letting residents know about upcoming decisions before they are made so residents can make their views known. I try to do that in my newsletter and online. Several residents said they had no idea about the proposal to reduce speaking time until I alerted the community.

Second, elected officials and residents need each other to get the right decisions made. We have different, but complementary and equally necessary roles to play. Residents need elected officials who will put forward motions in the best interest of the community. Elected officials need residents to show up, voice their views and be present to persuade the majority of council to support such motions.

That’s what happened here, and it influenced the final vote in favour of public engagement. This is a victory for the public, by the public, working together with elected representatives. True collaborative democracy.

Your Take: What are your thoughts on the initial proposal to cut speaking time, and subsequent vote to keep it at 10 minutes? Leave a comment below.

Marianne Meed Ward

A Better Burlington began in 2006 after my neighbours said they felt left out of city decisions, learning about them only after they’d been made. As journalist for 22 years, I thought “I can do something about that” and a website and newsletter were born. They’ve taken various forms and names over the years, but the intent remains: To let you know what’s happening at City Hall before decisions are made, so you can influence outcomes for A Better Burlington. The best decisions are made when elected representatives tap the wisdom of our community members, and welcome many different perspectives.This site allows residents to comment and debate with each other; our Commenting Guidelines established in 2016 aim to keep debate respectful. Got an idea or comment you want to share privately? Please, get in touch:

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