Res Nova: Thoughts on attending a city council meeting

Allyson Kenning
By Allyson Kenning
November 17th, 2010

Last Monday I had the opportunity to go somewhere I’d never been before: a City council meeting. I was assigned a story about the Museum Select Committee and was encouraged to attend the meeting by my editor so I could see the Committee’s presentation.  Usually, I curl on Monday nights, but I managed to find a spare and off I went.  I decided to go early to get a good seat because I knew there would be quite a few people in the peanut gallery at this meeting to due to a vote on the pesticide issue and a couple of other exciting items on the agenda.

I arrived at 6:50 only to discover that there were no seats left in the 8-seat peanut gallery.  It was a cramped space, I hate cramped spaces, and I didn’t want to sit in a folding chair in a cramped space. I spied three empty tables in front of the U-shaped desk type thing where the council members sit. I asked someone in the peanut gallery what these tables were for and was told that “the press” sat at one of them.
I had to smile at the term “the press.” It seems quaint and anachronistic when you work for an online publication. However, more importantly, I was pretty excited, because, as a reporter, this table meant I’d get a front row seat for the proceedings and somewhere other than my lap to jot down notes in my notebook. Unfortunately, it’s a table meant for two. My colleague from the Rossland News arrived, and soon after my editor arrived, and, because I am the low person on the totem pole, I was relegated to a folding chair at the table. Three’s a crowd and it was cramped!
And talk about anachronisms! That notebook I mentioned above? Pshaw! Both my fellow reporters had laptops. And, to boot, all the councillors save one had laptops, too! I was able to ask Hanne Smith about this, and she told me that council had gone paperless because the amount of photocopying, lugging around of documents, and resources it was taking to run the show with paper was actually more costly than having the city spring for each councillor to have a laptop.  Here I was with my notebook, my pen, and my little digital recorder – and I felt like I was in the dark ages.
As the meeting was called to order, my feelings of being elsewhere increased. Now, I have been to board meetings, formal meetings, curling club meetings, and all sorts of meetings where decisions are voted on by an executive or members of the organization. I am used to motions being passed and accepted and all that.  What nearly floored me was the over the top formality of the council meeting, especially when people started referring to the Mayor as
“Your Worship.”
“Your Worship?”
My God, I thought, how archaic is that? And in Rossland! Not only was the mayor very formally addressed but the councillors were very careful to refer to each other as “Councilor So-and-So.”
Adding to the formality was the attire.  I haven’t seen so many men in suits since I attended a funeral last summer. OK, there were two – but they were dressed to the nines, as were a few of the women. Laurie Charlton had the idea; he arrived in jeans (he is also the only councillor who does not use a laptop).
So, we have suits, medieval-ish forms of address, and lap tops. I was no longer in the Dark Ages, I was in the Twilight Zone.
The juxtaposition of all this formality with the casualness of Rossland culture was bizarre. There are only two other places in Rossland where I’d expect such formality: church and court. Council Chambers is neither. Yet the presence of this odd decorum made me feel distinctly peasant-like.  I highly suspect that if I were to, at the appropriate spot in the agenda, pipe up and say “Yo, Greg, my man, how’s about getting my street cleared before noon this winter?” I might be slapped across the wrist or fined for contempt of council. Likewise, if I were a council member, I doubt it would go over very well at all if I were to say, “Um, yeah, Laurie, nice idea but I can’t just get behind getting rid of all my facial cosmetics, dude.”
All this begs the question “why?” Why is it necessary to keep around such archaic proceedings? Why can’t we all sit around in a nice circle and say what we want to say, the way we want to say it? I’d love to a come-as-you-are approach. I work at home, often in my jammies. I’d love to come to a pow-wow style council meeting in my fleece PJs and Birkenstocks and just say, “You know what, guys? We need a little more grit on our streets this year. How about it?”
What’s wrong with gathering as a community of friendly neighbours to resolve things, and ditch the formality? What is the point of adhering to outdated decorum? Because I don’t care how traditional it is, but calling the mayor “Your Worship” is just plain weird (the religious connotation seems inappropriate to me in this context) and the overly polite “Councillor” this, that, and the other all the time honestly seemed too contrived. No one talks like this anymore – unless they’re in church or court – and for good reason! It creates distance between people who are supposed to be equals (everyone in this town is just as important as the mayor and the councillors) and it creates a sense of hierarchy that doesn’t sit well with me.
But despite my feelings of being in some odd alternate universe during this council meeting, it was definitely a worthwhile experience.  As a community member, I do believe it’s important to see how our elected officials help run the show around here. Though it was not the most scintillating evening of my life, it was extremely insightful, and I encourage everyone in Rossland to make the effort to at least attend one council meeting so they can see for themselves what goes on there and how decisions important to all of us are made.
Incidentally, council meetings are video recorded now and available to view on the City’s web site. 

Categories: Op/Ed

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