Just forget the words and sing along

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Failure to Agree

For the first time ever, I feel I must start a blog entry with these words.

This blog is the property of Mark Cappis.  The views expressed are his and his alone.  This blog does not reflect the views of 94.1 the River or Newcap Radio.

Now then.

Last night I was out for a drive, enjoying this late spring/early summer weather, when I got a call on my cellphone.  It was my colleague, the news reporter down at the radio station.  I was in a bad area, so I couldn't quite hear him on the phone.  Eventually I heard, "Just come down to the station when you get back in town!"

I got back into town and swung by the station, and the news reporter was behind himself.  It's the third Tuesday of the month, which means it was Athabasca town council night.  Having started here as the news reporter myself, I knew council started at 7PM.  It was around 7:20...far too early for a council meeting to end.  That's when our news reporter started telling the tale.

The town council meeting was only 15 minutes long.  It was canceled after 15 minutes, because council could not agree on the agenda.

I was flabbergasted.  How could such a thing happen?  Our news reporter then went into detail.  The meeting started with the usual pleasantries...a cheque presentation, the announcement of some new staff members, the usual photo op stuff.  Then it came time to approve the agenda, a fairly routine procedure in meetings of all kinds.  There were some last minute additions to the agenda, also a routine procedure in meetings.  With the newly amended agenda, it was time for the agenda to be approved and the meeting to begin.

One councilor was absent, so council was down to six members.  Three voted for it, three voted against it.

Hmm...this was a problem.  So, in the interests of moving things along, the new agenda items were removed, and the agenda was once again put to a vote.

Three voted for it, three voted against it.  Deadlock.  Again.

Council turned to the chief administrative officer for a ruling.  The CAO simply pointed out that they can't have a meeting without an agenda.

So the meeting ended.  After 15 minutes.  Because, quite frankly, they couldn't agree what the meeting should be about.

I finally had to ask...what were those last minute agenda items?  What items were so contentious that they brought Athabasca town council to a halt?

There were three last minute additions, the news reporter said.  The first two are in-camera items.  As that's the stuff that's done in private, we have no idea what those matters were about.  But the third one had to do with the procedure for adding last minute agenda items.

Let me make that clear:  the government was brought down because they couldn't agree on a last minute agenda item on the procedure for adding last minute agenda items.

I burst out laughing at the absurdity of that statement.  And our news reporter just stood their shaking his head.  The stories he tells about town council...the things that don't make the news.  This is a council that has become very wrapped up in proper procedure.  This is a town council that has grown to love its red tape.  There was an issue between the town council and the local paper not too long ago.  An artist's rendering of a new bridge under construction was handed out in the agenda package, and the newspaper printed it.  It turns out the newspaper wasn't supposed to do that, as the artist's rendering is not supposed to be public knowledge yet.  Now, most agenda items begin with a lengthy discussion as to whether the item at hand is public knowledge or not.

Late last year, one town councilor was upset because one of his blustery speeches never made it into the official record, because it never got a seconder.  So, in the name of speeding things up, this councilor began the movement to do away with seconding motions.  It passed.  And rather than speed things up, this seems to have double the length of meetings.

Our news reporter constantly tells tales of a council that has grown obsessed with nitpicking procedure rather than getting business done, and I can't help but laugh at the absurdity.  Sitting around nitpicking procedure is something I've seen bring down many a high school club, but never a municipal government.

Word on the street has been for a while now that our town council has grown very dysfunctional.  I was rather blind to this until I attended the all-candidates forum for our by-election back in February and the council's dysfunction and failure to agree on most topics was the most common topic there.  I didn't quite understand it myself until this incident tonight.

The agenda is what says what a meeting is about.  Town council can't even agree on what they're meetings should be about.

I almost say council should take a sitcom approach to things.  They should all be locked in a room and not let out until they've resolved their differences.  Thing is, councils all across the country do that.  They call it a retreat.  But when our new mayor came to power a year and a half ago, he did away with retreats, saying that they were just expensive vacations on the taxpayer's dime.

Shortly after retreats were abolished, town council then increased travel allowances for councilors so they could start attending conferences out-of-province.  I remember making the joke at the time that the honeymoon was over for council, as they'd be taking separate vacations this year.

Turns out I wasn't joking.  Our town council is a very dysfunctional marriage.  It's falling apart.  There were three delegations at town council last night.  Three groups looking for support from their leaders to improve this community.  And they were sent home without being able to present their cases, because council determined their issues weren't as important as a last minute agenda item on last minute agenda items.

This town can be great.  The people can do great things.  But they can't, because our leaders are too busy bickering about how to dot the i's and cross the t's.   

UPDATE:  I see out local paper already has an article up about it.  Click here to read all the sordid details. 


Kenten said...

I found this thoroughly entertaining. But very diplomatic, too, and you don't name names. Though the newspaper does, with direct quotes, so that was fun, too.

Anonymous said...

As a former Athabasca Councillor it sickens me to see this happen. When I was on council, we had major disagreements but never on procedure. Retreats are one of the most important things councils can do... they are not vacations... 8 to 12 hours locked in a room discussing in detail your issues and your vision is healthy. Talking after the retreat session over dinner is very good as well because it allows councillors to get to know each other on a personal level and discuss issues one on one in a more relaxed atmposphere. Comprimises can be found or at least a deeper understanding as to why a council member may take a certain position. The main thing with retreats is that there are no distractions... people need to be focused on the agenda at hand and everybody gets to have their say without playing it up for the media or not saying something for fear of it being repeated in the media. This council is a complete joke and administration must be besides themselves trying to navigate these rough waters... this attitude and uncertaintly flows down and it affects the attitudes of the employees and the public. Strong councils disagree, debate and make decisions then move forward as a team even if you don't agree. This council spins their wheels and are not a part of a team at all. Its just a big pissing match from what I can tell. Proper procedure is that councillors can only speak on an item after a motion is made. so if there was an item that majority of council didn't agree with it, the councillor would have been able to speak to his motion and then council could have defeated it after it was on the table "because they were administrative matters" or whatever. This way business could still get done and the meeting could move forward. I'm very disappointed in Athabasca council and they need to apologize for their behaviour. Sad to see how Athabaca has gone from a progressive community with people of vision for the future to people who can't see past themselves.