Committee of the Whole 101

Much ado has been made lately in the press about Council’s Committee of the Whole (CoW).  Opinion within Council is divided — some love it, some hate it — but most of the public don’t even understand it.  Here’s the low-down:

Any council or board normally has some kind of committee structure.  The purpose of a committee is to review and debate items before they come to Council.   Then, the committee makes a recommendation to send to Council for a final vote.

Having a committee review, debate and make a recommendation before going to Council is a good idea. Stakeholders and citizens can come and share their input before Council makes a decision.  Like anything, the background work done well at committee makes it easier down the road.

Guelph used to have a Standing Committee structure.  There were five (5) committees, as follows:

  • Infrastructure, Development and Enterprise (such as roads,sidewalks, water, business Development and downtown renewal)
  • Public Services (such as tourism, recreation, emergency services, transit, etc.)
  • Corporate Services (such as human resources, finance, legal,  city-owned real estate)
  • Audit (make sure money is being spent as planned)
  • Governance (strategic planning, accountability, transparency, CAO review)

In the old standing committee structure, four councillors (and the mayor) sat on each committee.  Meetings were scheduled at standardized times and, typically once per month.  At the end of the month, all of the committee recommendations are presented to Council and ratified.

In the Committee of the Whole structure, all of these committees meet on the same day, one after the other, and all 12 councillors (and the mayor) are members of all the committees.

On the surface, it appears simple.   Proponents say it is more efficient because there is only one meeting, instead of five meetings.  Technically, this is true.  However, so far, CoW meetings have been longer than all five previous standing committee meetings put together.   This is because all 13 members of Council are present, which tends to mean more questions of staff and longer debate.

A CoW governance structure can often work well for small boards or councils.  Larger councils get bogged down in discussion and debate, and this is why larger councils tend to do most of their work using a standing committee structure.

When the CoW structure was first proposed for Guelph, I did not support this new model.  I have been consistent in my opposition, up to and including the Council meeting on May 23, 2017, where I voted against continuing with the pilot project.  Council voted to continue to evaluate the CoW process for another six months, so this is the plan moving forward.  I do not think it is a good move for Guelph, for the following reasons:

  • longer committee meetings
  • repetitive discussion
  • false sense that committee recommendation will pass at council
  • not as accessible for constituents to attend daytime committee meetings
  • councillors can’t focus on one area, must attend all meetings

It remains to be seen whether the CoW will continue beyond the spring of 2018.  As we move forward, if the CoW structure is to remain, we need to see evidence that our citizens understand and feel included in the decision-making of the city at the committee level.  As always, I welcome your thoughts…

LP

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