Port McNeill mayor Gaby Wickstrom wants to see a change in the way her councillors are able to do business.
At their Feb. 23 meeting of council, Wickstrom submitted a report that asked for council and staff to set out their working relationship as a group through the development of a council/administration policy.
The report states that over the past two years, “issues have arisen over the access to information as it pertains to decisions made (or to be made) at the council table by a majority vote. Clear direction, through policy, is needed to guide both staff and council through the establishment of a governance framework, roles and responsibilities, council/administrative protocol and organizational tools.”
Wickstrom’s report pointed out that “despite being understaffed at the beginning of our term, and various points throughout, the Town of Port McNeill has been able to undertake several significant projects. With major capital projects on the horizon, a framework is needed that will provide consistency on how we proceed with our objectives and how staff time is utilized.”
The report concluded by asking for council, after it has reviewed the sample policy, to provide direction to staff to “develop a policy with the tools needed to consistently carry out the direction of mayor and council.”
Wickstrom opened the discussion by stating this policy will help move items forward and allow council to ask the right questions and establish clear guidelines in the months ahead.
Coun. Shelley Downey spoke first, noting she had read through the document, stating she found it “actually well crafted… I think it clarified roles and responsibilities… I would support this.”
Coun. Ryan Mitchell then jumped into the conversation, stating he “read through it, and I did some reading on the role of what a councillor has in British Columbia.”
He added the role of councillor falls into three broad categories; representative, policy maker, and steward. “This document, from the reading I’ve done, really narrows down the role to that of policy maker, and it leaves out the roles of steward and representative.”
Mitchell said councillors are supposed to represent the people of the region, and must be willing to contribute their free time to consider the greater good of the community. “My feeling about this particular document is that it will stifle that representative role quite significantly… this particular document stifles individual initiative, because before you can ask for any information, you have to get the majority of council to say ‘yeah it’s okay to ask for that,’ and if they don’t agree, you can’t ask. I can’t stomach that, so because of that, I’m completely opposed to this, and I wouldn’t want to see this become our policy.”
He questioned if this is the kind of rigid policy that council would really want to pass, noting it’s already difficult to get information [from staff] and “this would just make it more difficult.”
“Can you give me an example of where you read that it would be hindering your information? Because all of council is able to bring things to the table in a timely way,” replied Wickstrom, pointing out other councillors bring items forward for discussion all the time.
“Sure, at the beginning of my term, I said I would like to know what the details of the airport contract are, what is the machinery that surrounds the operation of our airport, and I was told until it becomes a council priority, you’re not allowed to ask for that, that’s what the CAO told me at the time,” countered Mitchell.
He added this was an example of being stifled “and I don’t like being stifled.”
Wickstrom wanted to know where exactly in the policy it states he would be stifled.
“The policy says if the council doesn’t vote to act on an issue, it’s not going to happen,” Mitchell replied.
“That’s how council works though, by majority vote, that’s why we’re a council,” said Wickstrom.
Mitchell continued on, stating he wants to be able to ask staff for information on certain issues in town, and this policy says he’s not allowed to do that. “First council has to pass a resolution to allow me to ask that question. That’s what this is saying… if it’s going to use staff time, that staff time needs to be allocated by council.”
Wickstrom explained if they have an item that they are already looking at as a group, and if the questions go in a direction that aren’t where the majority of council wants them to go, “then it’s recommended you bring it back to the table just to make sure that staff time is being utilized properly and they know exactly what they should be doing and get further guidance.”
“Again… I don’t find that it’s clear except that it’s going to stifle individual initiative, and I know that I’m right because that’s what it’s designed to do, it’s designed to make sure you don’t go off track, you don’t use your initiative to ask a question that isn’t what four other people also want an answer to,” countered Mitchell.
Downey then jumped in and asked for clarification on what specific part of the policy Mitchell is alluding to. “I read it as, if one of our councillors is looking for information from staff, such that the volume inhibits the workload or the ability for the office to function, or get their work done, and that is a judgment call on behalf of staff, that the request will come before council.” She added when it comes before council, they can vote yes or no if it needs to be addressed.
Mitchell argued that when he was first elected to council two years ago, he asked for a report on the marina that had recently been written, but he had been told by the Chief Administrative Officer (Pete Nelson-Smith) he wasn’t allowed to see it because it hadn’t been released to council yet. “Because I got insistent, and I didn’t need a vote of council to do it, I just made noise, eventually that report got released and it turned out that it changed the decision that we ended up as a council making – I knew there was something wrong with it, I knew there were things missing, and I didn’t need three other people to agree with me.”
Coun. Ann-Marie Baron spoke up at that point, stating there were three things that peaked her interest in the policy, regular reports to council regarding administrative activities, clear and concise council reports, and the corporate business planning and budget process that implements the strategic direction set by council.
She stated that if the policy is “so contentious right now, I’d rather see us focus on those three points and work together to know how those things can meld together.”
Baron added she’d rather not shoot the policy down completely, but she would like to see them focus on those three points more in the future to help out staff and council.
Wickstrom put forth a motion to table the item and said they would have a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss it further, which was approved.
When asked to comment after the meeting, Coun. Derek Koel said that in general, he doesn’t think the policy is needed.