It’s a seemingly routine task that most mayors and councillors are familiar with. A speaker comes before the council, is formally welcomed and allowed to speak while politicians listen patiently. It doesn’t matter if the speech is boring or irrelevant or repetitive and it may not even matter if the politicians are really listening or merely pretending to do so. The idea matters, the idea that you are being listened to by those who have the power to shape your city. The whole scene is an affirmation of democracy and this political contract between the people and politicians plays out in the villages, towns and cities across the country.
It does play out in the City of North Vancouver as well but a recent council meeting could make anyone wonder if the spirit of democracy is being squeezed out of even this basic symbolic act of a citizen speaking and the councillors listening. At a recent council meeting, Mayor Darrell Mussatto welcomed a citizen to the podium but hastened to pull out the rule book on the what, why and when of speaking before the council.
“You spoke about development on the second and the 16th (in October). Are you speaking about development again? Are you speaking about developers and development again? You are allowed to speak only once every three months on the same issue. Well, you can’t speak about development. You can speak about other things but you are allowed only one topic every three months. I know you come every week, but you can’t say the same thing every week,” he said, warning a speaker before him.
“I will speak and see how it goes,” the man said.
“Yes, give it a shot,” the mayor said laughing, and then reminding him again about the rule.
“We have a rule. You have to speak about something different. You can’t just come back with the same thing,” he said
“It’s not the same,” the man insisted.
“It’s the same. It’s about developers and my name will come up in the next 30 seconds and how bad I am. You can’t just do it every week. You can do it once every three months. Just in the future, you can talk about one general issue every three months, so you get the full two minutes when it comes to development, but if you wish to talk about something separate… find a topic you haven’t talked about in the last three months and then we would love to hear from you,” Mussatto said.
Fred Dawkins of North Vancouver City Voices says this kind of limitation only serves to discourage public engagement.
“It’s clear that the mayor and his voting bloc on council too often view citizen input as an inconvenience, not a welcome sign of an engaged public. It’s hard enough to get people to engage in municipal affairs without putting a lot of arbitrary restrictions on their right to speak. If civic officials can’t take being criticized in public for their decisions, they shouldn’t be in politics,” he says.
The changes to the public input were introduced after a heated debate in 2015 when a staff report suggested to council the public input be done away with altogether because the input was often accusatory, repetitive and not relevant to the topic being discussed. After hue and cry, the council decided to keep the public input period, but not without restricting it with limits on the number of times one topic can be discussed in three months. Other changes also included limiting the numbers of speaker to five unless there is a unanimous vote to allow more speakers.
In fact, when he reminded the speaker about the only-once-in-a-three-month rule, the mayor seemed to be keeping a promise of being strong in implementing the rules. “You have to be respectful and play by the rules and I will be firm,” he said back in 2015. “No member of council or public can question the motives of the council. They can’t question the motives. They can’t express a negative opinion of the personality or the character of the council member and nor can they speak disrespectfully. I will rule with a tougher hand,” he said.
Former councillor Bob Heywood says the policy is on the slippery slope of public’s right to freedom of speech, access to elected officials, and bona-fide public input for council to make its decisions.
“If this policy is being used to weed out individuals that are against certain applications or future decisions, then the policy cannot withstand the test of “fair and reasonable”. We don’t really know if all persons and lobbying agencies are being held to the same policy test. Perhaps it is time for someone to challenge this policy, maybe a review by the BC Ombudsman?” Heywood says.
Former council candidate Amanda Nichol says she feels the elected officials used their position and power to change policy to muzzle criticism.
“I feel like it might have been done to censure particular individuals that a majority of the council did not like, did not want to hear from, and did not want those watching council to hear from. It might lead one to question, why? What, in two minutes, are those individuals saying? How is it that the questions, comments cannot just simply be addressed and/or followed up on at a future meeting?”
Former mayoral candidate Kerry Morris says it’s wrong to limit speaker input at council meeting to just five individuals, and it’s wrong to limit the topics on which anyone can speak, over and over again, if that is what they choose to do.
Council watcher Cathy Lewis says there have been several times that the speakers have been interrupted and told they were not allowed to speak on the same issue that they brought up in the last three months. “At most meetings, there are no more than three speakers and many times no one signs up to speak. Whether I think it is fair? I think it is a change to the bylaw that has muzzled the public from being heard,” Lewis says.