Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Public Input Meeting on Maley Drive Shaping Up to be a Sham

Details of the Maley Drive Extension Project public input meeting were made available on the City of Greater Sudbury's website today. I recently called for Council to hold a public meeting on this project as one of the elements that I believed the City needed in order to demonstrate that a social license exists for this project to move forward (see: "No Social License for Maley Drive," Sudbury Steve May, January 27, 2016). Of course, the sort of "public meeting" I had in mind was one which was in keeping with the City's established rules and procedures - the sort of meeting that wasn't being designed from the outset to be nothing more than a sham process whose goal is to check a box that says "Completed". I'm certainly one who is all for public input prior to Council making a decision - especially one like Maley Drive. Fact is, we should have had sessions like this a decade ago - or maybe 2 decades ago, going back all the way to 1995 when the Environmental Assessment for this project was prepared. However, we're here now, and this is the session that we've got - even though it's not clear that Council will be making any further decisions on Maley (there's certainly no decision point on Council's agenda, and some members of Council have publicly said that they don't need to make a decision on Maley, as previous Councils have dealt with it). Calling the Meeting So why the rush to have a public input session now, and how did this session actually come about?  It looks like it may have been called by the Mayor, even though the Mayor clearly indicated that his mind was already made up about the Maley project (see: "Mayor open to public input, but committed to Maley project," the Sudbury Star, January 31, 2016). But Council didn't direct that this meeting take place - at least I can't find where Council did so, in accordance with 32.01 of the City's Procedural by-law. While the by-law does allow the Mayor to call what amount to emergency Council meetings (section 7.09) or Council by petition to call a meeting (7.10), the by-law appears to there contemplate actual meetings of Council - those that have the elements prescribed by the by-law, including the need for quorum. A public input meeting doesn't appear to fall into that category, as it certainly will not include the prescribed elements of a Council meeting. As per the City's Procedural By-law, public input meetings don't actually require that a quorum of Councillors be present (section 32.01) for the meeting to be held. Clearly, we're not talking about a regular or special meeting of Council, as those meetings require quorum, along with numerous other elements. At regular or special meetings of Council, real community delegations could be given the opportunity to present to Council in its entirety, as per the by-law (although delegations are limited to 3 in number at any regular or special meeting of Council or a Committee of Council). Purpose of the Meeting With this public input meeting, even if all members of Council show up and listen to presenters, those presentations won't necessarily influence a Council decision on Maley Drive, because it's not apparent that Council will be making any new decisions on Maley at all. Some on Council have been clear that they do not believe that any further decision is needed for Maley, and that the current Council can hang its hat on the decisions of our former Councils. If no decision point is coming forward for Council action, what is the point of consulting with the public? I believe that a decision point is needed for a social license - but I'm just some guy with a blog. It's Council that needs to be convinced that they are going to make a further decision on this project at some point - and we've not seen that. So what's the real purpose of this meeting? Input at the Meeting Further, as per the by-law, input at public input meetings is limited to just 5 minutes (32.02, sub 2). If 10 minutes is a more desirable amount of time for public expression, it should be Council which makes that decision in advance of the meeting. It's very curious that 10 minutes is being used as a bench mark, given that it's the same amount of time that Tom Price was going to use for his presentation to Operations Committee - and given that it's contrary to the Procedural by-law. Also, the Procedural by-law does not appear to contemplate an opportunity for Staff to provide information at a public input meeting. This is a time for public input, after all - and not an opportunity for staff to present information and facts. Staff have a lot of opportunities at Council and Committee meetings to do this. The public doesn't. And since a quorum of Council is not required to hold a public input meeting, it's likely inappropriate that Staff present to individual Council members rather than Council as a whole. With all of this in mind, why have Staff been invited to this session to present an update - which may include new information about the project which hasn't been available to the public? Public Confidence in Consultation Processes With what appears to amount to clear contradictions to the City's Procedural by-law, one can't help but wonder whether this meeting will be held in good faith or not. If it's a good faith meeting, it ought to follow the rules - which include being called for by Council, and in keeping with the by-law. Frankly, there are no good reasons to break the rules here - unless the purpose of the meeting is to game it. We've already had one Councilor on social media crowing about how he will be asking Maley Drive detractors serious and direct questions to presenters to provide evidence to support their opinions. Of course, questioning presenters is allowed as per the procedural by-law, but only where the intent is to seek clarification or seek additional relevant information (32.02 sub 6), and not to embarrass speakers or to substitute one's opinion of the facts in place of the speakers. With the potential for new information being made available to the public for the first time just that evening (although likely being made available to Council members before the meeting), it may be that Council members will find themselves in positions to speak from a little more authority when questioning members of the public over facts that members of the public couldn't possibly prepare themselves for. Council members should be very concerned about how this meeting came about - and about how it's going to be held. If the Procedural by-law was bent when the meeting was called, and bent further by including input from Staff, what additional bending might the public expect to take place on the night of the meeting? Can we guarantee that public speakers who hold positions contrary to those which some members of Council have publicly stated - can we guarantee that those speakers will not be harassed in a public venue at a meeting likely to be recorded and live-streamed to anybody with an internet connection? Given what I've seen on social media, coupled with the way that the public input meeting process has unfolded so far, I certainly don't have a lot of confidence that speakers will be treated fairly. The City should strive to seek out the confidence of the public in all public processes. That's one of the reasons we have a Procedural by-law in the first place - to assure that rules are followed and that everyone's expectations of the process are met. It's Council that will ultimately be held responsible for the breakdown of rules. I sincerely hope our individual Councillors question whether this rule-bending "public input meeting" which was called on authority that was no theirs is one what they want to be associated with. Public confidence in this meeting is taking a big hit. Greater Sudburians deserve better than a sham meeting that isn't following the rules as per the Procedural by-law. (opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be considered to be consistent with the policies and positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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