Question period is gone, not with a whimper, but with a bang – and a few choice words for elected officials.
White Rock council voted this week to remove the 15-minute question period from their biweekly meeting, with Couns. Helen Fathers and David Chesney opposed.
As the motion was passed, residents in the gallery began to walk out, complaining about the decision, with former councillor Margaret Woods calling the mayor and council “cowards.”
The question period allows residents to ask mayor and councillors questions; in January 2013, it was moved to the end of the meeting – usually after Shaw Cable stopped recording it for TV broadcast – and was limited to matters from the evening’s agenda.
The bylaw amendment to remove question period has been on the table since Jan. 26.
When introducing Monday’s final vote, Mayor Wayne Baldwin told council there are “ample opportunities for people to question council” and suggested a regular forum be scheduled to allow residents to connect one-on-one with elected officials.
“Not everybody is real happy about walking up to the mic and speaking into the mic in front of a bunch of people. But most people are pretty happy when they are able to talk one-on-one with councillors or with a group of councillors,” the mayor said.
“So that, to me, is a great solution (rather) than having a question period at the end of the meeting.”
Fathers – who was on holiday when council unanimously gave the amendment first, second and third readings – questioned the decision to take away the “forum for public discourse.”
“It’s hard for me to support this. Question period has been the hot potato for the last six years, and it keeps getting passed around and moved around the agenda,” she told council.
“It’s 15 minutes every two weeks, it’s really not that big of a deal.”
Speaking to Baldwin, Fathers noted he had done a “good job of controlling the meeting” thus far.
“People ask questions, and whether we like those questions or not is immaterial,” she said. “Municipalities should be embracing it… I don’t think we should be concerned or scared about that.”
Chesney – who previously had voted in favour of the decision to remove question period – also announced he would vote against, noting his decision to change positions came “upon further reflection.”
“I guess perhaps my initial knee-jerk reaction was to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he told council.
Chesney told Peace Arch News Tuesday that when the amendment was first introduced, “there was an overpowering mood in the room.”
“It was going down the drain,” he said. “And at that time, I thought, you know what, I’m going to have other battles to fight.”
However, after speaking to residents, Chesney said he realized his vote would be a matter of public record.
“Years from now, people may look back and ask, who the hell thought it was a good idea to get rid of question period? I didn’t want to be on record for that,” he said.
Chesney – who noted he had been at the question-period microphone prior to his election last November – said that while he voted against the decision on Monday, he agrees question period had become “useless.”
“I’ve been there, and to be very honest, question period, at the best of times – and this isn’t a reason to get rid of it – but at the best of times, as someone that’s used it on various occasions, I felt like I may have just gone down and talked to the white rock,” he said. “You get up and ask a question, and they just stare at you and ask, ‘is that it?’
“They don’t talk to you, they don’t discuss it, no one gets back to you.”
Chesney said residents will have an opportunity to ask questions of council members when he hosts monthly “community conversations” at White Rock Library – with the first slated for March 7 at 10 a.m.