Plus, you can listen to a segment of “Tear It Down,” an eight-chapter audio series about a small town whose government became wildly dysfunctional when political insurgent group formed seeking revenge: www.tearitdownpodcast.com.
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Mary Rita Holland is in her second term as Kingston District 7 councillor and she describes the training that new councillors just received, accommodations for children in the meetings, and the choice she regrets from her first term.
Q: The Kingston city council recently started a new four-year term and one of your brand-new councillors, Robert Kiley, wrote in the Kingstonist, “Speaking of meetings, that’s how we finished our orientation: in a mock meeting, with funny motions, like establishing a public kale bar, which articulated step by step what happens around the Horseshoe.” Were you at that practice council meeting?
A: I was. We focused on introducing some new food options, including real dairy products, at our council meetings. Currently we use powdered coffee whitener for members of the public and for staff and councillors. One of the motions for debate was whether we should move toward real dairy.
Q: What was the final outcome of that debate?
A: We voted in favor of real dairy products in our council meetings and I think we also voted in favor of the recommendation for a kale quinoa bar. That was a little less contentious. We do want to see more people come to our meetings, so the better quality the coffee and milk, hopefully the better the attendance!
Q: On April 7, 2015, you proposed having childcare for certain public meetings. What is this revolutionary, socialist utopian idea of yours?
A: I am a single parent, but I was aware of the fact that I was probably the first member of council in a situation like this–where if our meetings went really late and I had a babysitter, that was a problem for me. So it seems like there are a number of barriers for younger members of the public to participate in our democracy. I thought by introducing childcare at meetings, it might mean that for those families who wanted to get out and participate, they could do that and they could feel very comforted that their children were having a good time in the room next-door.
Q: I want to take the listeners to June 13, 2017. This was the start of what ended up being a 10-hour meeting over two days about a “third crossing”–a third bridge over the Cataraqui River. Right up top, Councillor Peter Stroud attempted to curtail that by moving that the staff presentations get cut so the question time could start sooner. The council defeated that idea. I understand that Councillor Stroud stepped out. Would you describe to me what you recall?
A: He stepped out of the room. I stepped out at the same time, although that was not coordinated in advance. But we had the same rationale for getting rid of that briefing: we’d already heard the information more than once. We thought the time would be better spent hearing from the public. In a bit of an act of protest, we both left the council chamber.
Q: What did you do?
A: I found Councillor Stroud standing at the front entryway. The two of us stood there at the door and complained a bit about the motion losing. We were frustrated with how the entire vote and decision had been proceeding all along. We were talking about it in the entryway. That didn’t seem wise and we don’t really have a private room for our own discussions at city hall. He said, maybe we should go across the street to the pub and chat a bit more.
Q: Did anyone come up to you while you were in the pub and say, “hey, wait. There’s a council meeting and you’re councillors, so…what?!”
A: No. Of course I had it in the back of my mind that it wasn’t wise to be leaving the building, but I guess given the fact that I knew I had to go back to that meeting and be composed, I thought it made a bit of sense to go and calm myself down a bit. It turns out there were members of the media in the pub. When I went back to my seat in the council chamber, there was a tweet going around about the fact that we had left.
Q: Reflecting on that tweet, do you think that take of “walking out on the job” was an accurate one?
A: Yeah, and I’m laughing about it a little bit today but that turned out to be a very difficult time. I care a lot about public engagement and the public trust and I want people to not be cynical. When I realized that this would make people cynical about politics, that it was a bigger deal than getting out for a breath of air, I felt really awful about it. I should have stayed.
This Christmas, we are celebrating the third year in a row that City Council Chronicles (and our other project, Tear It Down) has made the ELGL Top 100 Local Government Influencers list! We are very thankful for the award, and you can read more about the other 99 honorees on ELGL.org.
Simultaneously, you can listen to our holiday-themed podcast episode on iTunes, Stitcher, Player FM, and right here:
On this episode, you will hear excerpts from these full interviews:
Alexa Loo is a former Olympic athlete and current city councillor who has witnessed a pull-and-tug over the maximum size of houses on Richmond farmland. She explains what the root of the issue appears to have been for some people.
Q: I must congratulate you on being newly inaugurated to a second council term. Whose idea was it for the men and the women to take separate oaths of office?
A: What ended up happening is the men ended up sitting on the one side of the room and the women sat on the other side. It just worked out that way. On the women’s side, we even sit in alphabetical order. And that wasn’t planned either.
Q: So is this going to be like a seventh grade dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other for the next four years?
A: Yes! It is what it is.
Q: On your island, you have something called the agricultural land reserve. About 39 percent of Richmond is farmland. Why were some councillors concerned about how long that would last?
A: There had never been a cap or a limit on the size of house that you could have on agricultural land. House sizes started to get bigger. There were starting to become applications for things as big as 40,000 square feet. You can put a skating rink in 40,000 square feet.
Q: In a meeting, your council decided to put a cap on the size of a house on farmland to around 11,000 square feet. I don’t know a lot about farming, but I’m assuming that with my bedroom, my children’s bedroom, my tractor’s bedroom, my wheat thresher’s bedroom, and the bedroom for my livestock–even with bunk beds I’d be pushing it with 11,000 square feet.
A: Well, a wheat thresher is so big, you can’t even drive it on a standard road, so–
Q: I would need a really big bedroom is what you’re saying?
A: You would. There’s a whole bunch of rules that still protect the farmland, so at some point, does it matter if they have a three-car garage or a four-car garage? Does it matter if you have six bedrooms or five bedrooms? Why is it anybody else’s business what they’re doing?
Q: The fact is some people were unhappy with the limit. They thought 11,000 square feet were way too many–
A: And there’s a lot of people that don’t want a proliferation of South Asian people living on farmland.
Q: Their outrage was specifically aimed at limiting a racial or ethnic group from building these houses?
A: Typically those are the people building it. It’s easy to go after the size and shape of things if you know it’s gonna stick it to that group, I think.
Q: You referred in council meetings to the “good old boys” and fairness. Why in the meeting did you couch your language like that?
A: Because standing up at a council meeting and calling other people racist is a bold and dangerous move. Throwing names around like that–we’re not allowed to call people names.
Q: Were there any other councillors who felt the way you did about the racial aspect?
A: Oh, everybody’s well aware of it. The 23,000 square foot house that had been built, it had been built by a Caucasian person in Richmond. And he had a bowling alley in it. So when people are like, “what do you need a big house for?” He needs a bowling alley, apparently. But nobody seemed to have a big problem with it. They were more in awe at the time. But now if somebody else builds one, there’s a problem around it.
Joe Mihevc was a councillor for over 20 years when Ontario’s premier suddenly announced in the middle of this year’s election that he was cutting the size of Toronto’s city council from 47 wards to 25. This prompted several chaotic council meetings and even more chaotic provincial legislative sessions.
Q: Where were you on the night of July 26, 2018?
A: All councillors were in council session. That’s when we heard rumor on the second floor during the council meeting that something big was happening. We very quickly understood that the premier was going to be making an announcement the very next day that he was going to reduce our council.
Q: You said the word “premier.” For our American listeners, you’ll have to explain what that is. I’m assuming the premier is some sort of demigod? An authoritative mystic with the magic of Dumbledore and the charisma of Barack Obama?
A: Well, the equivalent to premier is “governor.” Here if you win the premiership, you also run the political party that has charge of the legislature. So it’s a pretty neat gig if you can get it.
Q: Councillor Paula Fletcher used the term “Trump tactics” to describe Premier Doug Ford’s council cuts. Do you agree with her description?
A: Absolutely. When we use those words in Canada, in this context it meant that the premier was acting in an authoritarian way. He was not consulting the folks that were impacted. It basically came from his head and he felt he needed to act, which is our perception of how things flow these days at the presidential level.
Q: During the July 27 meeting, you took a dinner break. And after councillors came back, the tone was completely different and more confrontational. What changed during that break?
A: As the day went on it became clear that the threat was real. I would suggest that what Doug–a part of him wanted us to fight it out. He actually provoked a “Hunger Games” at the city. Forty-four councillors recognized that if we did go to 25, there would be a fight for many a seat. Every councillor positioned himself to be active on the issue partly to show the community how strong they were going to be opposing Doug Ford.
Q: Help me understand the types of councillors who were in favor of the province’s action. You mentioned there were Doug Ford’s allies, but were there also people who really could not stand the way your council operates?
A: I think the people who were supportive of Doug Ford’s actions–all of them were on the right-wing side of council.
Q: What do you make of the notion that as a councillor, you don’t have to have 12-hour days and do everything for everyone. With fewer councillors, your focus should be on taking votes in meetings, legislating, and not micromanaging everything that goes on in your neighborhoods?
A: That’s a very good point. It depends on your philosophy. If you want to put it on a spectrum, you can say on one side you are the board members of this $12 billion corporation called the city of Toronto and you are there to make decisions. That’s your job and that’s it. Others feel–and I would be one of them–that you have face time with residents. To double the size [of wards] means to get half the amount of face time.
Q: You knew Doug Ford when he was a city councillor. I take it he was a stickler for efficiency, effective governance, and moral rectitude?
A: [chuckles] Doug Ford was a stickler for trying to grab the limelight and score political points on how he hated all government. The word “dysfunction” that Doug Ford labeled city council–it was dysfunctional for many years when he and his brother [Rob Ford] were here. He was willing to go up into the audience. There was once when he was taunting them to come down and take him on. I remember those times as really tumultuous. Once they left, guess what? A new calm. I would suggest right now that provincial parliament is highly dysfunctional, and he’s at the center of that dysfunction.
Follow former Councillor Joe Mihevc on Twitter: @joemihevc
Jyoti Gondek is a first-term councillor in Calgary, where the discussion has recently turned to council transparency. She explains how it is sometimes necessary to go into closed-door meetings, and responds to the accusation that bullying is occurring therein.
Q: What is your position on city councillors’ attendance?
A: We had one of our fellow councillors raise the point that we should be better documenting when council members are present for a vote or for a meeting. I don’t disagree that it is important that your elected official is weighing in on your behalf. But the way that it was being proposed–through a roll call–to me was a bit ridiculous. There was an article written in a local newspaper about it and it called me out for being terribly nasty and not in favor of transparency. So I took a lighthearted approach and wrote a little something myself about what an “awful person” I was for not wanting transparency! It was a bit of a parody, but it was asking people to think about: do you just want a roll call? Or do you really want to know what kind of job your elected official is doing?
Q: I’m between your position and the more transparent position on attendance. Say you are able to keep track of councillors who wander out of a meeting, who are not there for votes, and who are strategic about when they are in their chairs. What am I supposed to do with that information? I’m not saying, “who cares about attendance?” But if I did care, is this a problem that’s actually affecting things?
A: Attendance has been exceptionally high. We have not seen council members who are trying to use the system and leave for a contentious vote. I don’t think the system is being gamed.
Q: Your council has had some drama about what happens behind closed doors generally. On April 3, Councillor Jeromy Farkas tweeted out:
While sometimes they are warranted, these secret meetings have also been abused and misused to instill fear, intimidate, and shut down new ideas. I am very pleased that Councillor @peterdemong is helping to tackle this issue. #yyccc 2/
Of the charges in that tweet, what percentage are true? What percentage are false? And what percentage are maybe just misinterpretations of people’s intentions?
A: I think it was an interesting thing to post on Twitter rather than bringing it up in a council meeting or to the integrity commissioner or to the mayor. Intimidation is a very big reach. I’ve never felt that way. This idea of secret meetings–or the “chamber of secrets” as it’s been dubbed by Councillor Farkas–perhaps he is learning the ropes. Sometimes a council has to take things offline because there’s confidential information.
Q: On April 5, there was a motion to study the amount of time Calgary spends on closed session meetings. But all of a sudden, Councillor Jeff Davison stood up and expressed his displeasure at those tweets, then apologized for any offense he may have caused. When that happened, did you think, “oh, good! This will clear everything up!”
A: [laughs] No, I did not. Before we go in [to the closed meetings], it’s clearly identified what we are going to talk about. This idea of saying we’re going in camera [closed session] to insult a colleague or intimidate them, it’s not a fact. Now you’ve got a council that’s second guessing, “did we ever say anything that may have been construed in a manner other than what we intended?” If this is a big gang of bullies ganging up on one person, I think you would’ve seen more people actively doing something a lot less public, but we’re not. I think we were caught by surprise. I never expected him to say something about intimidating and bullying because I haven’t observed it.
How much time should city councils put between heated debates? First-term Councilor Virginia Ridley has some suggestions. Plus, on the podcast we discuss bullying, meeting schedules, and affairs.
Q: I want to go to October 27, 2015. Not to get too specific with the listeners, but there was a report from the city administration about arts funding that the council asked for earlier that year. And Councilors Jesse Helmer and Mohamed Salih did not feel city staff had given you what you requested. So they made a motion to refer the report back to the administration. How often does council vote on something in a meeting and then people don’t follow it?
A: At the beginning of our term, I think it happened more frequently than it should. We had a relatively new council. We had a number of bumps in the road and maybe council’s direction was misunderstood.
Q: So after a bit of debate here, you stood up and offered a motion to reconsider. The council voted on the Helmer-Salih motion, which was defeated, so they moved on to your reconsideration motion. However, the mayor suddenly told you that you were ineligible to make that motion because you were absent from the original meeting. How were you feeling at that moment?
A: Oh, I was angry. We had already established that if we vote no to the motion on the floor, we could do reconsideration right next. You see there was no pause. Within three seconds, it’s, “oh, no, you actually can’t make that motion.” It certainly angered me quite a bit.
Q: Right, one vote can certainly affect a subsequent vote in council. And it did seem a bit suspect that the mayor did not have this information on the screen before he, I guess, clicked “end” on the voting and announced the result. But I’m sure he did the best he could…except for the fact that you learned MINUTES AFTER that vote that you ACTUALLY WERE in attendance and could make the motion! Did you have a realization of, “oh, god. If that was incorrect, what else in our records is inaccurate?”
A: I knew all along I was correct. It was one of those, in the moment, not having the proof at my fingertips. I would agree with you. What other errors could potentially happen here?
Q: At this point, the city manager stands up. He responds to the initial complaint that this report is not what the council ordered by stridently defending the staff. How justified was his pushback?
A: I don’t know if I could say that absolutely he was in the right. That statement probably escalated things more than they needed to. The way our council works is the night before, we would’ve had a committee meeting. That would’ve been Monday night. On Tuesday night, council would confirm and re-debate all of the committees that had happened. We were having the same debates the second time.
Q: I mean, doesn’t that open itself up to the situation we just witnessed? That if you didn’t win the argument on your first night, you get to re-litigate the argument on the second night?
A: The fact that we do it one day apart, people haven’t had the opportunity to reflect. If we’re there until midnight on Monday and we’re back 16 hours later, people haven’t had time to walk away from the situation, think about it, talk to their constituents.