The pandemic has prompted many changes in the way we operate, and this has extended to the operation of local governments. Municipal councils have always had strict rules about meeting and making decisions in public. There are a few exceptions, but generally municipal decisions cannot be made in backrooms— they must be made in the council chamber with council members present, debating, and voting in clear public view.
When the pandemic arrived, this had to be reconsidered because it was unsafe for councillors, staff, media, and members of the public to come together in close quarters in a council chamber.
The provincial government, which regulates such things, recognized that a change in the law was needed, and allowed meetings to be held electronically. In some ways, this was a huge change, in other ways, not so much. Instead of physically attending at city hall, councillors could now “attend” council meetings virtually, while the public was free to watch through the wonders of modern technology—the dawn of the Zoom Era. Public health concerns were served, but meetings and decision-making were still open to public view.
This was a bit clunky at first as people forgot to un-mute themselves before they spoke, but over time elected officials and staff became accustomed to the new way of doing business and most agreed that, while it was second-best, it did work, and business got done.
In some ways, virtual meetings are good for public participation because it allows members of the public to watch the meeting and even participate, with appropriate prior arrangement, from home. Unfortunately, it is problematic for areas without good wireless coverage, or for people who do not have the necessary hardware.
Thank you, Queen’s Park for being responsive to a needed change.
However, another change was made at the same time, and it is less clear why this was needed. Municipalities were permitted to establish a procedure for proxy voting by councillors at a council meeting.
Proxy voting means that a councillor does not need to be present at a council meeting to vote. Instead, a councillor can ask another councillor, called a proxy-holder, to vote on her or his behalf.
Proxy voting means that a councillor does not need to be present at a council meeting to vote
Proxy voting is generally not used on corporate boards or similar decision-making bodies. Neither the federal parliament nor the Ontario legislature allows it. The reason is that great value is attached to the idea of several learned and committed members sitting down together (even virtually), sharing their views, hashing out some differences, and then voting after everyone has been privy to this enlightening discussion.
Personally, I have had the experience of walking into a meeting with a clear idea of how I planned to vote. I have then listened to the views of my peers, was introduced to a new way of looking at an issue, and realized that my predisposition was incorrect and I needed to vote in a different way. That is precisely the reason why boards value the interaction of peers.
I mentioned earlier that great importance is attached to holding council meetings in public. Proxy voting would mean that councillors could vote on an issue without stating their reasons or otherwise accounting for their views in public.
The proxy rule states that a councillor attending the meeting can be a proxy-holder for only one other councillor. This would mean that only half of the councillors “voting” at the meeting would actually have to be present at the meeting. In practice, quorum requirements would adjust that slightly.
However, one could imagine a scenario where four members of a seven-member council are in attendance, three of whom hold proxies for other councillors. Strong arguments are made against a proposal and the vote of those in attendance at the meeting is 3-1 against, reflecting the discussion seen by the public. However, after proxy votes are counted the proposal could be approved, 4-3, leaving the public to wonder: what just happened here? This vote might be the wisest course of action, but it runs counter to the idea that the public should be able to see the municipal decision-making process in action.
Finally, I simply do not see the need for proxy voting. As I said earlier, allowing electronic participation in meetings has really become essential for health and safety reasons during the pandemic. It is a system that is no one’s first choice, but most people agree that it works. However, proxy voting is not a logical extension of electronic meetings.
Unfortunately, people will sometimes have to miss a council meeting through no fault of their own, but they would still like to weigh in on an important issue. Yet people who are not fully-informed about an issue should not be able to vote on that issue, and a councillor who has not heard the views of her or his colleagues is not fully informed.
Again, kudos to Queen’s Park for allowing electronic meetings, but proxy voting is a bit of a head-scratcher. ◆
David Siegel is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Brock University.