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SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Summerside city council voted Monday night to change the format of its public meetings, at least temporarily.
The decision came during a sometimes acrimonious first official meeting Dec. 17 for the new council, which was elected last month.
The fracas started early in the proceedings, after deputy mayor Norma McColeman put a motion on the floor that would create a number of city committees, with various councillors as their chairs and deputy chairs.
Coun. Brian McFeely raised his voice in opposition to this move, which he said equated to changing how the council conducts itself without first having a public debate or giving the four new councillors information about the larger discussion at play.
They would essentially be voting on something they had no background information about, said McFeely.
“I'm very disappointed. I think it's regrettable this motion is being brought forward without council having the opportunity to receive a thorough briefing of the current governance model as defined by our procedure bylaw.”
Summerside's council, and most other municipal governments across Canada, traditionally used a system where only some councillors sit on certain committees, which meet independently from each other and then report back to the group as a whole during a monthly meeting.
However, the previous council changed that for Summerside about a year into its four-year mandate. It moved to a committee of council system. Instead of several committees acting independently, every councillor sat on every committee, except technical services, and they met, had discussions and received presentations as a group, then made recommendations for follow up at full council meetings.
Following McFeely's comments, he put an amendment on the floor to table the vote and push back the decision to reinstate individual committees until early in the new year.
That extra time would allow the new councillors to get up to speed on both models and make an informed decision as to which they would prefer, he said. The motion was seconded by Coun. Bruce MacDougall, who expressed similar concerns.
Mayor Basil Stewart took exception to the amendment.
“A lot of great things happened in this city under the previous process,” said Stewart, who added that he'd made it clear since he was elected there might be some “tweaking” of the council process, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that this motion was coming.
At that point there was some confusion as to whether the rules of the meeting technically allowed for more debate on McFeely's tabling amendment or whether it had to be voted on immediately.
“We're going to call for the vote now,” said Stewart, speaking to MacDougall.
“You've got to realize there was a thing on Nov. 5 called the election and we (have) new people elected here and they are entitled to a say and some opinions.”
McFeely and MacDougall said it was never their intention to shut down debate on the amendment, and asked that the wording to be changed to allow for more discussion on it. It was the “tabling” wording that was the technicality sticking point, once it was removed discussion could be held prior to a vote.
“You got the new council confused enough?” asked Stewart at one point.
“I'm confused myself,” responded MacDougall.
Coun. Cory Snow, one of the four new councillors, expressed his frustration at how the process was handled.
“We basically sat here tonight arguing for the last 10 minutes as a new council and I'm disappointed in the way its started, to be honest with you,” said Snow.
In the end, McFeely's amendment died on the floor when McColeman suggested adding a proviso to her original motion, which called for Monday's decision to come back for more discussion in January. Councillors voted to pass the original motion with that revision.
That vote means, technically, the committees were voted back into existence, ostensibly changing how council operates - at least until the subject gets back on a future agenda.