News / Halifax

Marathon meetings renew debate over how much Halifax council should be sitting

At least one councillor thinks they should go back to weekly meetings, but the mayor says there's no problem.

The public gallery is full during a recent council meeting. Over the past two weeks, council meetings have gone about 12 hours each.

Jeff Harper/Metro

The public gallery is full during a recent council meeting. Over the past two weeks, council meetings have gone about 12 hours each.

Have you ever been to a meeting of Halifax regional council?

OK, maybe not.

But where you work, you probably have meetings now and then.

How long do they last? Half an hour? An hour?

Imagine a 12-hour meeting.

Now imagine you’re 11 hours into that meeting.

Are you paying attention? Are you giving much thought to the issues on the agenda? Or are you just counting down the minutes?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Regional councillors are no different.

Councillors have sat for more than 11 hours the last two weeks at Halifax city hall, and about eight hours each at the two meetings before those.

“I don’t mind working 12 hour days. Lots of people work 12-hour days and then get up the next morning and do it again,” Coun. Tim Outhit said on Wednesday.

“But I just wonder … toward the end of the longer period of time, are we asking enough questions? Are we making the best decision if we’re not at our best?”

When council first decided to meet biweekly rather than weekly, Outhit was among a few around the table that didn’t like the idea. He still feels that way, and hasn’t voted in favour of the last two meeting schedules.

Outhit’s reasoning hits to the point of why the switch was made in the first place.

After the last municipal election in 2012, council delegated responsibilities to standing committees like the transportation standing committee or the appeals standing committee. They’re made up of six councillors and meet monthly to deal with issues in their respective wheelhouses, and then send them up to regional council for final approval if need be -- the same way committees are used in provincial and federal governments.

Staff presentations and debate that were usually done in council were now done in committees, and it was decided that there was no need for council to sit every week.

“Council isn’t busy enough to meet every week, it seems, yet we have more and more being done by standing committees that, I think, keeps some councillors in the dark, and certainly keeps residents in the dark,” Outhit said.

“People are not watching and listening to these standing committees.”

He believes that work should be done in committee of the whole, where every councillor is present for the debate, and there’s a greater chance the public or the media will take note.

Outhit points to the way the budget was done this year as an example.

Rather than the audit and finance committee handling the budget proposals from each business unit, they were dealt with in committee of the whole.

“I think we’re starting to move in the right direction,” he said.

Outhit acknowledges he’s in the minority among his colleagues.

“The council is run by the agenda, and these last couple ones, we’ve had some lengthy items on it, that’s all,” Coun. Russell Walker on Wednesday.

“I’m in no hurry to go home. I’m there to do council’s business.”

Mayor Mike Savage sees no issue with biweekly meetings

Halifax regional council has sat through a pair of marathon meetings in the last few weeks, but the mayor doesn’t think that means council needs to meet more often.

In 2014, council started meeting biweekly, rather than weekly.

Mayor Mike Savage said Wednesday he doesn’t think there’s any need to switch back, but it’s up to council.

“If they think it’s time to switch, we can try something different, but I wouldn’t do it now based just on the last couple of weeks,” he said.

“We’ll monitor it, and keep our eye on it, but I think it’s OK.”

Savage said it’s hard to predict how long certain agenda items will take, and some meetings just take longer.

“Sometimes they’re quick and sometimes they’re not,” he said.

Metro's former city hall reporter Stephanie Taylor weighs in on the difference between council in Halifax and Winnipeg:

Having sat through innumerable 12-hour council sittings covering Halifax City Hall -- which often ended with me watching the live stream from an empty newsroom -- I began to ask myself: How does this keep happening?

The answers began emerging once I started covering Winnipeg City Hall. Both cities have 16 councillors around the council table, including mayors, but somehow this city manages to, more often than not, end its meetings closer to the eight-hour workday mark.

One could consider that surprising, considering Winnipeg’s council meets monthly, rather than biweekly, as in Halifax.

The difference, however, lies in the decision-making model.

In Winnipeg, elected officials are given more opportunities to debate items at a committee level before an issue hits council floor for the ultimate vote, as is standard governance structure.

For example, there are six policy committees in Halifax that meet monthly, compared to nine that meet twice a month in Winnipeg.

And although no one dislikes a closed-door meeting more than a reporter, Winnipeg’s mayor recently said so far this year, there has been a record number of private council seminars, where city staff brief councillors on an issue before it comes time for a public vote.

All of this to say that one can hardly blame Halifax councillors for taking their time to make a decision, when they have such little time to do so.

How long Tuesday's regular council day has gone so far this year:

·      Feb. 23 meeting: 11 hours, 15 minutes

·      Feb. 16 meeting: 11 hours, 20 minutes

·      Jan. 26 meeting: 7 hours, 36 minutes (no committee of the whole)

·      Jan. 16 meeting: 7 hours, 56 minutes (no committee of the whole)

What other councillors are saying:

“I don’t really have any issues with the biweekly schedule as it’s working now because I do feel that we have the liberty to change that on a need be basis.” -- Coun. Lorelei Nicoll

“It’s sporadic. There’s seasonal demands that probably require us to meet more frequently.” -- Coun. David Hendsbee

“I don’t care if I’m there till midnight, if I’ve got an opinion and something to say, I’m gonna say it, it doesn’t matter how long the meeting is.” -- Coun. Russell Walker

“I have a very high capacity to work long days and always have. I don’t know if everybody’s that way.” -- Coun. Steve Craig

 “I wouldn’t be opposed to going back to weekly. I think there’s merit to it, but that’d be the will of council.” -- Coun. Steve Adams

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