Reforms Proposed to Remove Barriers to Council Participation
A few weeks ago I wrote about the need to improve the diversity of our Council, after speaking on the issue at our meeting of February 14, 2022.
On March 14, 2022, Council will receive a memo I prepared on this issue. It outlines some immediate and longer-term reforms which are designed to remove barriers to participation. The purpose of this is to send a strong message to the community that anyone ought to be able to run for Council, and fully participate once they're elected.
If we are serious about our commitment to renewal and growth as a community, our procedures need to respect the constraints on working-age people.
The undeniable fact is that Council is not reflective of the community it represents:
While our community is evenly split between men and women, only 2 Council seats are held by women;
While roughly three-quarters of our community is under the age of 60, 71% of Council is age 60 plus;
25% of our community is Indigenous, compared to 0% of our Council;
People not in the workforce hold 86% of the seats on Council; and
34% of the households in our community have children in them, but none of the people around the Council table live in those homes.
Obviously, Council is made up of democratically elected individuals, and we can't (and shouldn't) control who the community decides to put in office. However, we can remove barriers to ensure we are not disincentivizing or erecting obstacles to different types of people from even running for office to begin with.
To be frank, there is a well-documented diversity crisis in municipal politics in Ontario. Most Councils – even in larger centres with more diverse populations – lack proportionate representation of racialized minorities, women, Indigenous people, those living in poverty, those under the age of 40, and members of the LGBTQ2 community. Our Council sits among municipalities of a challenging size, where the time commitment is more significant than in smaller centres, but not enough to justify a full-time or even half-time salary. As a result, Councils – especially in smaller communities – have tended to attract a "retired, self-employed, financially-stable demographic".
At the same time, we know that diverse decision making bodies make better decisions. There are multiple studies supporting this proposition, including studies which highlight that improving the social (i.e., gender, age, ethnicity) and professional diversity can have positive outcomes for the bottom line and community engagement. This is recognized by other levels of government and funders of the municipality too, which are often now asking applicants for grants and other financial supports to about whether their governing body reflects the diversity of the community.
Tl;dr, on diversity, Council in Fort Frances does not measure up.
The primary barriers to diversifying Council and attracting a wider range of candidates are as follows:
The limited scope of electronic/remote participation in meetings;
The scheduling of meetings during the business day; and
The lack of lower time-commitment opportunity to "learn the ropes".
I have proposed the following short-term reforms, to be introduced in advance of nominations for the upcoming election, in order to ensure all eligible candidates feel they are equipped to participate in Council, should they be elected:
Requiring that all regular and special meetings of Council or Committee of the Whole take place after 5:30 PM unless the meeting is for an emergency purpose;
Requiring that following a municipal election, the initial meetings of executive committees shall be scheduled for 7:30 AM or 5:30 PM, with an initial item of business at the first meeting being to determine the regular meeting time of the committee going forward; and
Requiring that electronic meeting participation be made permanent for all meetings of executive committees, Committee of the Whole, and Council.
In addition, with a municipal governance review on the horizon for later this year, I have proposed the following further proposals be considered as part of that process:
That Council consolidate the number of executive committees from 5 to 3, in order to reduce the time commitment for councillors and the mayor, as well as to make more efficient use of staff resources.
That Council appoint 2 members of the public as voting members of each executive committee at the start of each term, on an application basis. These appointees should be paid a small stipend for their service, and they should be selected in a merit-based process with the express intent that the positions be filled to build on the diversity of the elected Council (this will also provide mentorship and experience to prospective members of Council for future terms).
All of these proposals can be addressed through simple and straight-forward amendments to the Town's Procedural By-Law and/or Boards & Committees By-Law. I have asked that the materials I have prepared be referred to the Administration & Finance Executive Committee after it is received by Council on March 14, 2022.
The memo I have provided to Council is intended to start an important discussion about how we facilitate renewal in our community. Fort Frances is at a turning point – socially, economically, and demographically. Taking swift action – today – to ensure that our Council has more opportunities to reflect the community it represents is essential to improving citizen engagement and taxpayer satisfaction with the work of the municipality.
Will Council take this opportunity to do so?