Bylaw designed to improve behaviour at Nanaimo city council

NANAIMO – City's governance committee will consider a new draft procedure bylaw this April.

Rules against bad behaviour, media-only question periods and an end to texting during decision making are measures Nanaimo politicians are considering to improve council meetings.

Consultant Eli Mina has pitched a draft procedure bylaw with changes aimed to streamline city meetings and outline expected decorum of council members. The move stems from recommendations in a $75,000 governance review report, given to the City of Nanaimo last year.

Changes in the draft bylaw include slotting a 10-minute block at the beginning of council meetings for people to comment on the agenda and leaving the question period at the end of the night to media-only. Each person will have two minutes to speak.

Previously anyone could stand at the podium and ask questions without set time limits.

The bylaw also suggests politicians stop texting or sending social networking messages during meetings, as well as avoid personal attacks and offensive language against each other, staff members and citizens. Enforcement measures are outlined for those who don’t follow the rules.

It all boils down to decorum, efficiency and moving the city’s business ahead in a more orderly fashion, according to Mayor John Ruttan.

Question periods, for example, have been used to discuss non-agenda issues and harangue council for decisions that have already been made, Ruttan said, adding it was “really an exercise in futility.” The proposed rules would keep people on topic and allow them the chance to sway politicians before they vote.

But despite some useful points in the document, city watcher Ron Bolin said it still raises questions about why the city needs to make changes to its procedure bylaw at all.

“Until there’s a clear explanation why what we’ve got needs to change, it’s almost distracting to start talking about the details,” he said. “[Though] the details are scary enough when you start looking at them as far as public participation goes.”

Bolin said he doesn’t understand why the agenda is being broken up into separate blocks for public comment and media questions and calls limitations around the time and number of people who can speak anti-democratic.

“I guess that’s in a sense trying to copy partly the provincial and federal government, where citizens don’t get to ask anything, only the media can,” he said.

Nanaimo city council decided last December to take action on a governance report by Watson Inc, which had proposed 59 recommendations to help improve governance at city hall. Among the spending was work on a new procedure bylaw by Mina – a process expected to cost more than $11,600.

Coun. Ted Greves, head of the city’s governance committee, said he believes the draft procedure bylaw will help streamline meetings and outline the roles of mayor and council and dos and don’ts more clearly. However, the effectiveness of the new rules will hinge on council policing itself, he said.

Once any changes are made, “we have to agree this is the bylaw and we are going to live by it and there are repercussions if we don’t,” Greves said.

The governance committee is expected to review the draft bylaw at a meeting April 16.