Council debates new communication policy, strikes committee

Arlen MacLaine
By Arlen MacLaine
June 19th, 2013

Acting upon a previous request from council, city staff have produced an electronic communications policy that was table at Monday’s Committee Of the Whole meeting.  The policy would mandate that, among other things, (1) all informal electronic communications between councillors be cc’d to all members of council.  (2) Any electronic communication from council members to city staff is to be sent to the CAO for distribution, and cc’d to all of council, as well as vice versa.  (3) Any external electronic communication to or from any member of Council must be cc’d to all of Council and to the CAO for record-keeping purposes.  There were also some basic guidelines referring to etiquette.

The policy was not well-received by council. Though there was past agreement among councillors that there should be an electronic communications protocol, that was about where the agreement ended.  Everyone on council seemed to interpret the policy differently.  

Councillor Kathy Moore recommended that they not adopt the policy.  “There’s a lot in this policy that goes beyond what our original issue was,” she said.  “I don’t see the need for it.  I see it creating a lot more work for staff, and I think it got derailed from what we first talked about.”

Councillor Jill Spearn was also not in favour of the policy, as presented.  “To put restrictions around using electronic communications, it worries me.  Yes, I voted to have staff bring something back, but it doesn’t mean that i’m in favour of any kind of boundaries around email, other than the ones that have been pointed out before with regards to confidential information or things that are discussed ‘in camera,’” she said.  

Spearn also added that if it is policy to cc all of council when discussing an issue that doesn’t necessarily involve them, that’s fine, “but I don’t want to receive ‘umpteen’ emails about something that does not concern me.”

“I think that’s a balance we should all be aware of.” Mayor Greg Granstrom said.  “If an individual is emailing someone on council, that they cc all of council.  It is council’s business, and I don’t see a problem with that.”

Spearn and Granstrom agreed that it should be at the discretion of council as to how to communicate, be it via email or phone.

Councillor Jody Blomme saw the policy as more of a guideline to keep communications in an organized, clear fashion.  

“I think it is beneficial, and professional, to have an email protocol,” she said.  If the staff recommendation didn’t pass, Blomme would still want to see some sort of basic policy for communication.

Councillor Kathy Wallace agreed with Blomme that there be some guidelines and direction.  “Email is very effective for passing information, I don’t find email particularly useful for discussion.  It’s far too easy to misinterpret,” she said.  

However, Wallace also thought the policy had to do with transparency.  “The other piece of it is, discussions amongst council should be made available to the public,” she said.  “That was part of the reason that this came forward, in my understanding.”  

She suggested that a sub committee be formed by a few council members to take what staff has provided, and make it more meaningful for council.  Councillor Tim Thatcher echoed the need for a policy, and that it be tailored to fit council’s needs.

Moore felt that the policy might have a ‘chilling’ effect on communications between citizens and council, as any email from a citizen to a single councillor would then be forwarded to all of council.  Spearn agreed, and felt that guidelines were needed, but that ‘cc-ing’ an external email to a councillor to all of council was not necessary.  “We have certain rights, as individual councillors, that are not offensive to working as a group of people as a council,” she said.

After a rousing debate, the recommendation didn’t pass and the policy was not adopted.  In its stead, Blomme recommended that a group of councillors get together and work with the deputy CAO to come up with some guidelines within a month.

At this suggestion, Moore brought up all the recent committees that had been formed (delegation bylaw, procurement and contracts, citywide branding) and suggested that this communication policy was much further down on the priority list.  

“If we’re going to do something in the next month, let’s go back to the committee we set back in January to deal with the delegation bylaw, and let’s have that come forward,” she said.  “It’s something that’s actually more substantive that who’s copying who in emails.  The deputy CAO spent a bunch of time on this, and I would have much preferred the deputy CAO spend time on a bunch of other things that we have asked, but have not seen.”

“The point is, that we’re dealing with this policy right now,” replied Granstrom.  “We have other things out there, no doubt, but we’re dealing with this right now.  The only way we deal with this right now, is if we deal with it.”

The recommendation that a group of councillors work with the deputy CAO and create some communications guidelines, based on what staff provided passed, with Councillors Moore and Spearn in opposition.

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