Depending on who you ask, a new policy before City Council is either a major time saver or a threat to municipal democracy.
On Monday, council’s executive committee passed a motion to deal with what one councillor called the “overwhelming emails that have inundated administration.” Those emails come from councillors, who often submit resident concerns and seek a response from city staff.
Currently, those inquiries go to the city manager’s office, which sends a response back to every city councillor. But Mayor Greg Dionne said that eats up hours, even days, of staff time.
“It’s important that we don’t tie up our staff like we have been,” he said, “so they can do their job.”
Dionne offered a new procedure he says will speed up service, level the playing field and keep costs down. His office would essentially vet all inquiries on “projects, processes and directions” in advance, only sending them down the hall to the city manager “if a response is required.”
The mayor pointed out that the city already has an online portal to field questions and complaints from residents: the “report a problem” webpage. Under his proposal, all questions on city services would be directed there, not through members of council.
He said councillors who bypass the webpage for their residents are trying to “jump the queue.”
But the mayor’s proposal prompted acrimonious debate in the council chambers. Ward 2’s Terra Lennox-Zepp said the new system could leave council “hamstrung.”
“I don’t think that it’s responsible governance for us as councillors to vote in restrictions on information that we can receive,” she said. “I hope that we think long and hard.”
Councillor Charlene Miller shared those concerns, and said she would vote against the mayor’s plan.
“I’m not in favour of this at all,” she said. “It’s just another step in a process where we’re being hindered in our jobs as city councillors.”
Lennox-Zepp said the current system already allows the city manager to vet questions, and suggested merely restricting the number of councillors who he needs to keep in the email loop.
But Councillor Ted Zurakowski said that Lennox-Zepp had “misunderstood” the issue. He said the information councillors are sharing with residents could open up legal issues for the city.
“Some of the answers to inquiries, and even the questions, could put the corporation at risk,” he said. “What the mayor’s office does is put a political lens on that, so it can be vetted out.”
He said the mayor, as an elected peer to other councillors, is able to resist pressure more easily than a city manager.
“It’s rather difficult for the city manager to say no, outside of legal parameters, because, frankly, we’re his boss,” Zurakowski said, “and that’s why I think it should be elected to elected.”
The motion passed, with Miller and Lennox-Zepp voting against.