A Sidney councillor wonders whether the town should start providing care for children whose parents want to attend council and committee-of-the-whole meetings.
“So if we are concerned about limiting peoples’ participation, we might need to do what other councils have done, and start looking at child care provision,” said Coun. Sara Duncan. “I don’t know how many people in Sidney would take us up on that. We are such a small municipality, but I think that would be the main one.”
Duncan made these comments as council gave three readings to a bylaw amending the starting time for regular council meetings. They will now start at 6 p.m., the same time as committee-of-the-whole meetings. Pending final approval, the revisions also include a small number of changes to other procedural aspects, with none drawing more debate than starting regular council meetings one hour earlier from previous practice.
Couns. Scott Garnett and Terri O’Keeffe opposed the change during third reading. Duncan joined Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith as well as Couns. Barbara Fallot, Chad Rintoul and Peter Wainwright in support of the changes.
Garnett said he opposed the change because it threatens to undermine public participation. The earlier starting time could make it more difficult for Sidney residents working outside the community to make it back in time to attend regular council meetings.
Duncan disagreed. The number of people who can make a 7 p.m. starting time, but not a 6 p.m. starting time due to conflicts with work or family is “vanishingly small,” she said.
“The reasons those people can’t make it because of work or family commitments is not because of the time, but the fact that it is in the evening, or they can’t afford or don’t want afford the child care,” she said, before making her appeal.
She also made the argument that white-collar workers impacted by the change can always ask their employers to leave early to attend council at the new starting time, then make up the work later. This argument drew a rebuke from O’Keefee.
“Talking about people with white-collar jobs, we are making some broad presumptions about what peoples’ experiences are,” she said.
O’Keeffe also wondered why council would erect a potential barrier to political participation. “We didn’t hear anything from the community to bring this forward,” she said. “This came forward on your own initiative.” While staff and council would benefit from the new starting time, O’Keeffe said she supports 7 p.m. meetings if it potentially allows more people to attend.
McNeil-Smith said it is not a given that fewer people will attend.
While six or fewer people regularly attend both council and committee meetings, people have demonstrated that they will make arrangements to attend committee of the whole meetings at 6 p.m. if items on the agenda are important to them. “We have had some full houses for some [committee of the whole] meetings.”
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