Pelham Town Council as of August 2020. SUPPLIED

Kore again pushes for meetings inside Town Hall

It was one of those short, special council meetings that often goes unnoticed, the sort that’s usually about procedural matters of little general interest. That is, until a Voice reader brought this particular session to the newspaper’s attention last week.

During an August 10 special meeting of Pelham Town Council, members unanimously passed a motion to limit the size of reports and documents provided to them by Town staff for council meetings, while at the same time giving themselves more time to read them.

The session was ostensibly called over approving the continuation of meetings by video-conference for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, which was the only item on the agenda posted in advance for public notice. However, some councillors then raised concerns about their workload, suggesting that tabling discussion about the issue had been pre-arranged outside a public meeting.

As it stands, council meets the first and third Monday of each month—with the exception of public holidays, in which case the meetings are usually moved to Tuesday. The staff-provided agendas for these meetings are normally sent to councillors the Wednesday prior, giving members the better part of five days to review the materials. Despite this being even more time than given to the previous 2014-2018 council, the current council said it was having trouble keeping up.

“There’s a lot of information, and to try and do it in on a Thursday night, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said Councillor Ron Kore. “We have personal lives, and you have family members enjoying the day, and you’re out trying to catch up on information.”

Ward 3’s Bob Hildebrandt concurred.

We have personal lives, and you have family members enjoying the day, and you’re out trying to catch up on information

“I do have a problem with the number of days,” he said. “A 600-page agenda, to think we can actually go through those in the number of days we’ve been given, even if it’s Wednesday, is totally unacceptable in my view.”

The Town’s top civilian, CAO David Cribbs, conceded that one recent document was particularly large.

“I do apologize. We did give you a 600-page agenda during this crisis, and we did hope you’d read that over the weekend, and that’s probably not a fair or reasonable expectation,” he said.

However, the CAO added that the timing of the agendas’ release is related to the time necessary for staff to prepare them according to protocols.

“On the number of days [in advance], there’s a give and a take,” Cribbs said. “Staff use the extra days they have to finish reports and give them more accuracy. If you adjust that period too severely what will happen is we’ll simply be unable to make the following cycle….I’m not saying you can’t move it at all—all things in life are negotiable—but understand if you move it too far forward, it will literally make it impossible for us to comply with changes for the next meeting.”

Asked late last week whether staff had ever previously been told to effectively give councillors less work, Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato told the Voice that this was a first.

“I am not aware of any such requests specifically,” said Bozzato, “although agenda format changes have been made in the past to optimize meeting efficiencies, one example being the ‘Consent Agenda’ format, often referred to as a ‘Block Agenda.’”

Bozzato said that the 2014-2018 council received their agendas a day later than the current council, on the Thursday prior to the Monday meeting.

Mayor Marvin Junkin confirmed this timing when he was a councillor.

“When I was first on council, we would receive the agenda on noon Thursday, with it being released to the public by noon Friday. As a councillor, I would read through it sometime Sunday, so that if I had any questions concerning any particular item I could contact the appropriate staff member on Monday, before the meeting.”

Junkin said that for him little has changed.

“Now, as Mayor, I follow basically the same routine, although I give myself more time on the Monday to meet with the CAO to discuss any difficult items coming before council that night.”

Councillor Lisa Haun proposed moving the release up a day to Tuesdays at the close of business.

Cribbs agreed that was doable, although Clerk Bozzato explained the reason why she traditionally preferred Wednesdays.

“Certainly we can back that date up to Tuesday at 4:30,” Bozzato said. “If there are changes that are needed we can always add them as addendums. I tend not to like to provide council with reports through addendum just because I want you to have the fullest information as possible.”

The new timing of Tuesday was unanimously approved, as was a limit of 300 pages for the document.

“The size of the agenda has a great impact on how long it takes to go through it,” Hildebrandt said.

Junkin said that the previous council had never discussed limiting agenda sizes, despite frequently complex East Fonthill matters then under discussion.

“I was quite happy with getting the agenda on Thursday, said the Mayor, “but voted for the sooner release to help any councillors who were struggling with the short time span.”

Bozzato diplomatically suggested that staff efficiency would not suffer under the new restrictions.

“Staff regularly coordinates and monitors the agenda compilation through the Senior Leadership Team in an attempt to ensure business continuity while also balancing workload for all meeting participants,” she said.

Brock University Emeritus Professor of Political Science David Siegel told the Voice that there is no ideal agenda length, and that various councils take different approaches over time. However, he pointed out that much of what’s in one agenda was likely already in a previous agenda and does not necessarily need to be examined in detail.

“So if the issue is [a] rezoning, the package will have the current report with recommendations and previous reports going back several years,” said Siegel.

“Staff members feel that they need to do this to provide councillors with a full story of the background in one place. What this means is that in the lengthy package, there will be quite a bit that the councillor has seen before and can just skim.”

No councillor responded to a Voice request for comment.

Kore wants limit on virtual meetings

Council also unanimously amended the date for the next review of continued authorization to meet by video-conference. Council and staff have been meeting virtually, not in Town Hall, since the onset of the pandemic. While the original proposal called for extending the authorization for a period of one year from the termination of the provincial declaration of emergency, councillors agreed that was too far ahead.

Once again, echoing his challenge last spring to meeting by Zoom and not in person at Town Hall, Councillor Ron Kore led the charge.

“Why do we have to go a whole year?” Kore asked. “Can we not go three months instead of one whole year? One whole year on this bylaw is a lot of time.”

Public health experts have warned that a second wave of infection may be approaching, which, combined with the start of the customary flu season, could see the healthcare system once again under strain. Last Saturday, Ontario reported 232 new cases, the second day over 200 in the week, and Monday saw over 300 new infections reported.

Last week, the Voice was informed by a local business owner, who had stopped into the Fonthill Sobeys, which Kore manages, that he had seen Kore on the floor without a mask, despite Pelham and the Region both mandating mask wearing in enclosed public spaces.

Kore did not acknowledge a request for comment as to why he was seemingly determined to return to meeting in person at Town Hall, nor a request for comment about his mask policy inside Sobeys. In late March, Kore attended council with visible symptoms of a respiratory illness. A subsequent COVID-19 test showed that he was ill with the virus at the time. Three others in council chambers that evening later tested positive, including Councillor Mike Ciolfi, who died April 13. An official cause of death was never released.

Cribbs suggested reviewing the bylaw on December 31 of this year, but reminded council that this also required work from staff.

“Keep in mind whatever date you pick, we have to bring you a review report,” the CAO said.

Council agreed on New Year’s Eve.

With files from Dave Burket