Following pushback from residents, a controversial bylaw that would have changed the parameters of question-and-answer period at White Rock council meetings has been defeated.
Council voted Monday, July 10, to leave the process for inquiries from the public as-is, following a 4-3 vote two weeks earlier that directed staff to create a new bylaw stipulating that questions would only be received in-person and must pertain to items included in that meeting’s council agenda.
At the June 26 meeting, Mayor Megan Knight and Couns. Elaine Cheung, Michele Partridge and Bill Lawrence voted in favour of the creation of the new bylaw, while Couns. David Chesney, Christopher Trevelyan and Ernie Klassen were opposed.
Several people took to the microphone at the beginning of the July 10 question-and-answer period to urge councillors to reject the new bylaw.
“Not many people actually make time to follow council and make sure they review the agenda and see if there’s anything they need to comment on,” said resident Pat Petrala.
She added that community engagement is a foundation of democracy and the new bylaw will “silence your neighbours.”
“The brief 15 minutes for our elected representatives to hear from the community and others who can see it by the video feed, and not just the one sentence in the paper, is really valuable. It’s 15 minutes, two times a month, it doesn’t really add up to too much time in fact,” Petrala emphasized.
“I’m asking for the real math. What are the social consequences of eliminating 15 minutes two times a month?”
Another resident, Chris Shields, echoed Petrala’s concern, adding that emailing the city as an alternative is not ideal as, in his experience, “there’s often push-back.”
“This forum is a public forum and when someone comes up and voices their concern, it’s streamed and other people in the city of White Rock get to see it and hear it, so that’s transparent. So, taking that away makes me concerned about the transparency moving forward if you do approve the bylaw change.”
Resident and former White Rock city councillor Scott Kristjanson said that it is a mistake to limit the question period to allow only issues that pertain to that week’s agenda.
When he was on the task force for the dogs on the promenade, Kristjanson said, he “got inundated with lots of negative feedback, but you learn so much from people who give you that feedback and I think the process is better for it.”
The bylaw amendment was brought to council on Monday (July 10), resulting in further debate among councillors.
Coun. Cheung suggested a secondary question-and-answer period could be added at the end of the meeting, where residents can speak on topics outside of that week’s agenda, while sticking to “strict rules in regards to a respectful workplace.”
The mayor responded that creating another question-and-answer period could add to the problem.
“You’re just giving it more. Either stick with what we have or go with what’s on here,” Knight said.
Couns. Chesney, Trevelyan and Klassen stuck with their previous stance, insisting that keeping question-and-answer period open to all topics is the best route for council transparency.
“I think this provides a forum for residents to come and express some concerns and I’d hate to see the community use the media for that kind of forum, even more than they already are,” Klassen said.
Among the points highlighted by Couns. Cheung and Partridge were that the question-and-answer period is turning “abusive” towards staff and council members, but other members of council say the situation is not as bad as it’s made out to be.
“Nobody’s taking away anything, we’re just streamlining the process in doing council business,” insisted Partridge, whose idea it was to amend the question-and-answer period.
She added that council is not hearing about what’s going on in community, but is instead seeing residents be rude to staff.
“In the many years I’ve been on council, I don’t think it’s been abused. Matter of fact, I’d like to see more engagement by our community,” Chesney said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s right at the beginning of the council (so) you don’t have to sit through the entire council meeting. I don’t think we should throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.”
“In nine years, I have been criticized, I have been demeaned at question-and-answer period. I knew, coming into this room, I better have some thick skin,” Chesney added.
“As far as staff being attacked, I don’t agree with that. It’s been a very isolated case.”
In response to Chesney’s remarks, city CAO Guillermo Ferrero’s said the attacks are not isolated.
“You don’t hear the comments for yourself. I do, every day after a council meeting,” Ferrero charged.
“This council is very supportive of staff and this is what I’ve been hearing since day one, so please do that. This is not an avenue to come and criticize staff… If you want to support staff, this is your chance to support staff, if you don’t want to support staff, move on and uphold the status quo.”
Klassen and Chesney noted that while they do support city staff, criticism is a part of the job and can be helpful.
Trevelyan, who works as a school teacher, said, “I can’t imagine making a rule that parents can’t criticize me or students can’t criticize me, that’s the nature of the work that we do.”
He added that residents speaking during question-and-answer period can be prevented from bringing up specific staff members or departments.
Chesney suggested that keeping question-and-answer period respectful is in the hands of the mayor “to rule with an iron fist” and shut down any disrespectful comments.
“The words are already out of the mouth by the time I can stop them, so either that upsets staff or a council member or whoever. It comes out, I can’t stop that,” Knight replied.
A vote saw the motion defeated, with Lawrence joining Klassen, Chesney and Trevelyan opposing the amendment to the bylaw, in a 4-3 split, with Knight, Partridge and Cheung in favour.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information regarding council’s July 10 vote defeating the proposed bylaw change. This information is not included in PAN’s July 13 print edition, but will be updated in the July 20 paper.