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With the most recent Committee of the Whole/Council meeting clocking in at almost 9 hours (excluding breaks), the question of whether a system that was touted as promoting “efficiency” has really delivered up to it’s promise or not.

When contrasting the previous “Standing Committee” system versus the “Committee of the Whole” system, plain numbers and considerations point to it not working well.

The Standing Committee System

Up until late-2020, this and previous terms of Council used a Standing Committee system where work and items of business were divided amongst Members of Council on various committees. Council would receive the decisions/reports of these committees in the form of minutes and could approve or reconsider the actions and recommendations therein.

In a typical month under this system, there were 2 Council meetings, 2 Planning meetings and 1 meeting for each of the rest of the Standing Committees. Based on available data from the current term of Council, a Councillor under this system spent on average 11.85 hours per month in regularly scheduled meetings.

Meeting Hours Per Month - Standing Committee System

 Time (Hrs) Time (Hrs)
Councillor Bothwell13.76Councillor Ritchie13.76
Councillor Dunstall6.80Councillor Sharpe13.23
Councillor Freake12.16Councillor Vaine10.47
Councillor Kadwell9.93Councillor Vardy14.66
Councillor Average11.85 Hours

Committee of the Whole – Moving Forward?

On the basis that Council wanted to “streamline decision making at the
Council level, improving processes and enhancing clarity and efficiency”, Town Staff presented a report on January 21, 2020 recommending a change of governance to the Committee of the Whole model.

“To achieve this priority, a Committee of the Whole governance structure would foster a constructive and high performance team based culture that facilitates respectful dialogue and decorum.”

This post won’t examine the full validity of that statement, as only some metrics are measurable and the rest are definitely in the eyes of the beholder.

Rather than having the Standing Committees which would report to Council, they were discontinued and all Members of Council would then hear all matters at Committee of the Whole meetings. Decisions out of that meeting would then go to Council that same night for ratification or the proverbial “rubber stamp”.

Is the Committee of Whole System More Efficient?

The answer to that question is… yes and no. Do Members of Council have to attend less meetings, yes. Are they going as in-depth on all matters as they did under the Standing Committee system… no. Are meetings shorter… kind of.

Whereas on average Councillors were spending 11.85 hours per month in regular meetings under the Standing Committees, they are now spending 9.65 hours per month. Here is the time gains (or detriments) per Councillor:

Meeting Hours Per Month - Difference Under COTW

 Time (Hrs) Time (Hrs)
Councillor Bothwell-4.11Councillor Ritchie-4.11
Councillor Dunstall+2.85Councillor Sharpe-3.58
Councillor Freake-2.51Councillor Vaine-0.82
Councillor Kadwell-0.28Councillor Vardy-5.01
Councillor Time Gain/Loss2.20 Hours

While on average Councilors are now spending 2.2 hours less per month in regular meetings compared to the Standing Committee system, to say that this is a more efficient system would not be completely accurate given several factors.

Note: For clarity in calculations, budget meetings, “Special Council” meetings and breaks in or between meetings were not included. The numbers reflect regular “in-session” time only.

“Consent Agenda” Factor – Time Savings?

The Committee of the Whole system introduced the idea of a “consent agenda” where some reports and/or business items are grouped together and can be passed with one vote and never discussed/examined. While Members of Council can “lift” specific items from the agenda, not all items get the full attention they would under Standing Committees.

Business items are now shoe-horned into an agenda that has more than doubled in size. With so many items crammed onto the agenda, the business axiom of “speed, quality or cost, choose two” comes into play.

If time savings means that items are not examined in a fulsome matter as they were in the Standing Committees, then put another strike against the effectiveness of Committee of the Whole governance.

And if one were to expand the items that get passed as part of a “consent agenda” into proper discussion, the meek 2.2 hours of time saved a month would probably be eliminated or perhaps even exceed the Standing Committee numbers.

A proper governance system examines all issues in-depth and does not consider any issue minor or unworthy of full review and discussion.

Sober Second Thought

The “rush to judgement” on matters is a little better after Councillor Sharpe brought forth a “circuit-breaker” rule, meaning that rather than considering and finalizing items on the same night, the COTW decisions and minutes have to wait until the next regular meeting for passage.

Presumably in that time, there is a period to reflect on decisions before passing them finally at the next regular Council meeting. Sounds more like a Standing Committee system, doesn’t it?

Staff – Worktime Vs. Personal Time

Under the Standing Committee system, most of those meetings, with the exception of Planning occurred during the late afternoons or shortly thereafter Town Hall had closed for the day. Those meetings averaged in length as follows:

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Due to public meetings and open houses at Planning meetings, the results are skewed somewhat. Including the Planning data, Standing Committee meetings averaged 2.52 hours long, without Planning, 1.78 hours.

Under the Committee of the Whole, meetings generally begin at 7PM, averaging 3.05 hours in length. If you are a Staff member, depending on where your particular item lands on the Committee of the Whole agenda, you might be spending the better part of your personal evening waiting for the Committee to reach your item.

The “high performance” promised by the COTW system should not come at the cost of Staff’s personal/private time. However, seeing Staff now having to give up entire evenings, just to deliver a short report is evidence enough that “high performance” has little consideration for this personal time. Another strike.

Reduction of Council/Staff Dynamic

Under the previous Standing Committee system, there was always one or multiple Staff members available to discuss reports and answer questions that would arise at the Committee meetings. It also provided an informal forum where elected representatives and Staff could share concerns and ideas to the betterment of the Town.

The Committee of the Whole system has largely erased that. Staff typically only appear before Members of Council to verbally supplement their report and/or answer questions regarding such. This “scheduled appearance” format diminishes, to a negative degree, the dynamics and lines of communication between Council and Staff.

In order for Members of Council to make full and proper decisions for the community, opportunities for Staff input should never be limited, rather they should be encouraged.

Everybody Gets A Vote Now – Not Exactly!

The Staff report recommending disbanding Standing Committees and moving to COTW stated there was “reduced accountability as only appointed members of the Committees are allowed to vote”.

While this may appear to be correct on it’s face, the reality is that under the Standing Committee system, any matter that came from Standing Committee reports and minutes could be lifted for separate consideration of all Members of Council to vote on.

Nothing has been really gained in this regard under the COTW.

Less Transparency

Accountability and Transparency are one of Council’s “Strategic Priorities” and while in principle the COTW system would lead to more of this, in implementation it has stumbled out of the gate with little prospect of a strong finish.

Recent motions put forth by Councillors to get more regular departmental updates, including those regarding Planning and Development have been defeated 5-4. Through discussion on these motions, it is obvious there is less information being presented to decision-makers in Council… even though they ultimately steer the ship called Town Hall.

Conclusion

Is the Committee of Whole really working? It depends who you ask, but for the majority of residents, the answer is no. It might be a good time for Council to collaborate on a “report-card” and see if their vision of Committee of the Whole actually materialized.

If the answer is no, then it might be a good use of those extra 2.2 hours to reconsider. Grimsby certainly wouldn’t be the first municipality to scrap a Committee of the Whole experiment.