The reason we have rules
I promise this space isn’t going to become one of those confessional columns, although last time I confessed to not being a shopper and this time, I confess that I am a follower of rules.
Not all rules, mind you. But, generally, I’ll be the one standing on the curb waiting for the little white person to light up, even if there’s no car in sight for miles.
Local governments are themselves governed by many rules — the Local Government Act and Community Charter, procedures bylaws and Robert’s Rules. And of course, the rules of common sense and civility.
When it comes to how we conduct council meetings, these rules are very important. They ensure that no one dominates, the chair acts impartially, everyone speaks and listens respectfully, and the agenda proceeds in an orderly way.
Those of you who’ve been around Nelson for a while will remember when city council was really fractious. It was a tough time for me. I had to learn an important rule, and I didn’t much like it.
That commonly accepted rule is that once council has made a decision, all members (including the mayor, who is a member of council) should respect that decision — whether they agree or not. I often wanted to keep fighting beyond the vote because I was so frustrated.
Over time I came to accept the wisdom of not pursuing the fight. That only feeds community discord and a lack of confidence in elected officials — don’t you respect the democratic principle that the majority rules? It also complicates relationships around the council table. But it can be tough to follow that rule; I often had a sore lip from biting it.
Other specific rules govern us that are often misunderstood. For example, this paper recently reported that I abstained from a vote. Actually, that’s impossible. No abstentions are allowed. I assume that’s because we’re elected to make decisions, not sit on fences.
Then what does it mean if a council member doesn’t raise his/her hand during a vote? It means “yes.” In other words, if you don’t indicate your vote, it’s counted as an affirmative.
This rule applies to the mayor (or chair) of the meeting as well, because the mayor is a member of council. It’s commonly believed that the mayor/chair only votes to break a tie. Not true — the mayor votes every time, just like the rest of council.
An example of this was the recent discussion of the motion concerning the terms of the CETA trade agreement being negotiated with Europe, and the lack of openness around the negotiation. This is the first time an international free trade agreement has extended to the municipal level, and many towns, cities and municipal organizations (like the UBCM) have passed resolutions objecting to aspects of it.
During our discussion, Mayor Dooley was clearly opposed to the resolution and brought forward information for council’s consideration. In this instance, it would have been better for him to pass the gavel, so he could participate in the debate while someone more impartial managed the discussion.
In any case, when the vote was called, no hands rose in opposition. Therefore, it was a unanimous decision (including the mayor).
Unfortunately, the Star reported that “all five councillors present at the meeting supported the motion… The mayor, as the meeting chair, doesn’t vote on motions unless he’s required to settle a tie vote.” The truth is we all voted and we all voted in the affirmative, following the rules of the Community Charter.
Apart from pondering rules of procedure, and possible rules for dogs downtown (or not), I’ve been considering the rules of good financial planning. I think the City is doing very well following those rules, setting us on a firm footing for the future. On March 11, come to our budget open house and let us know what you think.
And, now I come to the next rule I must obey. The maximum word count for this column. Bye for now!
Donna Macdonald is a Nelson city councillor who shares this space with her colleagues around the table.