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January 31, 2018 at 10:42 AM

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Three ideas to improve the experience of speaking to City Council

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Recently, Vancouver’s City Clerk held a survey looking for input on “improving the experience of speaking to City Council.”

The Council Chambers at City Hall is one of the city’s key democratic spaces, and a truly important public space in the civic life of Vancouver. Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to make a number of deputations – and also watch as other community members and stakeholders did the same.

To that end, we submitted a short letter that identified three of our key concerns and ideas. It’s an incomplete list, and there’s other stuff that we didn’t include pertaining to the actual layout of the space, and some specifics related to Council procedure. Nevertheless, the items we did identify have been long-standing concerns for us.

Here they are, as excerpted from the letter:

1. Earlier release of Council reports is critically important to ensuring access, transparency, and participation in civic matters. The City’s current practice – which aims to have agendas and reports available only one week prior to a meeting – is a considerable barrier. First, it is often our experience that there is “slippage” around this one week timeline. Second, a one week lead doesn’t actually provide enough time for individuals and groups to (a) find out about a given matter, (b) review the related report and materials (often many dozens of pages long), and (c) prepare a response.

We would strongly recommend that the City extend the time that reports are “live” prior to a meeting to a minimum of two weeks. This extra time could easily be built into the schedule of sign-offs, concurrences and review that take place prior to posting the reports to your website.

Another suggestion would be to implement some sort of system of “alerts” – that could allow community members to sign up to receive updates on any Council items that contain key words (e.g. a street name, or key terms of interest). This could assist in getting the word out. An approach such as this was piloted in Toronto through a local non-profit a few years ago.

2. The scheduling of Council sessions during the day creates a significant barrier for people who work and wish to make a deputation. Almost every presentation that we have made to Council over the years has meant that one of our members has had to take vacation time (and/or defer work through other means) in order to do so.

One solution might be to utilize technological means to help mitigate this (e.g. through allowing video conferencing/skype deputations). Another solution would be to schedule Council during the day, and Committee meetings in the evening. This way, Council could deal with consent items and other presentations during normal work hours, but allow referral items, motions, etc. to be discussed when more people could attend. Either way, we feel strongly that something should be done to support people speaking to Council without having to incur a financial or work-related penalty to do so.

3. Presenting to Council can be a nerve-wracking affair for many people. The Council Chambers are austere, and the environment is very formal – which isn’t totally a bad thing. However, for new presenters, this can be intimidating. One idea that we have is to see the City create a humorous and engaging video that could walk people through the process of making a presentation. This sort of video could help to demystify some of the process involved, and perhaps even lay out a few “dos and don’ts” to ensure people making deputations make the best use of their time. It could also explain how public input is used – as one component of the material that Council deliberates over. This would help, in part, to answer a common question that community members have – “what happens to my input once I provide it.” It may also help to explain that Council’s role is to weigh trade-offs and make tough decisions (e.g. sometimes they will agree with a public perspective, sometimes they won’t.)

One last note: we hope that, when it comes time to redesign the new City Hall building, that there will be a good public discussion about the design of the Council Chambers. This is where much of our local democracy takes place, and the next Council Chambers built in Vancouver should emphasize values of inclusiveness, transparency, participation and dialogue (among other things).

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