Change looming?

The City of Guelph is committed to doing business differently and is examining all of its systems to ensure excellent outcomes for all citizens, exceptional personal experience for all customers, and value for money for the taxpayer.  This is not just a task for our Civic Administration but also includes Council.

There are two basic ways that municipal councils organize themselves:

  • Committee of the Whole Structure – this is when Council as a whole meets to consider all of its business
  • Standing Committee Structure – this is when Council establishes committees to consider certain business on their behalf.  Members of Council are appointed to committees (in our case 4 Councillors plus the Mayor to each committee). Committees report back to Council with their recommendations. Council has final approval of all business

Most boards, regardless of the sector, use committees to assist with their work, especially as the complexity of their business increases.


  • They allow for more in depth discussion than a Council meeting
  • There is greater efficiency and effectiveness afforded by working in smaller groups
  • They improve the quality of decision making

Guelph City Council has had a Standing Committee Structure for decades.  There are two principles inherent to a Standing Committee Structure.

  • We understand that Council is expected to work collaboratively to govern the organization in the community’s best interest.
  • We trust our colleagues to act diligently in fulfilling their assigned committee roles and responsibilities.

The Standing Committee Structure has served us well over the years. Of late, we have seen some erosion in the efficiency and effectiveness of committees.  Historically, members of Council attended the committee they were appointed to and not other committees unless there was a particular matter that was of interest to them (e.g. a Ward-specific issue). Increasingly, more members of Council are attending committees as “non-Committee members” and participating in the work of the committee.  Yet Council has not appointed these members of Council to these committees nor assigned them any role or responsibility with respect to the work of the committee.

So why should this matter? Isn’t this a case of the more, the merrier?

Attendance is definitely encouraged because it is a great way to learn about the work of the committee. However, in addition to eroding the efficiency and effectiveness of committees, allowing participation, treats some members of Council differently than others.  Council is a part-time position.  Some members of Council have full-time jobs.  Unlike some of their colleagues, those working full-time often do not have the flexibility to attend all committee meetings nor are they expected to under a Standing Committee Structure.

So why is this happening? It may reflect an unwillingness of some members of Council to work collaboratively or some members of Council may not trust their colleagues to act diligently to fulfill their duties. Or it could simply be a lack of clarity as to roles and responsibilities and that there are opportunities to strengthen the Standing Committee Structure so that it better supports all members of Council in fulfilling their duties.

In an attempt to bring more efficiency and effectiveness back to committee meetings, Council’s Procedural By-law was changed recently to limit the participation of non-members to simply asking questions of staff. In retrospect, I think this was wrong-headed. Why? All members of Council receive the agenda package for every committee meeting.  So they all know what is on the committee agenda and they are provided the staff reports to read in advance.  Committee members are encouraged to ask questions of staff in advance of the meeting so they can come prepared to the committee to make decisions.  A non-Committee member has the same opportunity – both before the committee meeting and before the committee reports to Council. However, unless the non-Committee member speaks to every member of the committee individually, the committee will make a recommendation without the benefit of understanding the perspective of other colleagues.

I believe there is more value in providing an opportunity for non-Committee members to address the committee than to provide another opportunity to ask questions of staff.  As Councillor Todd Dennis has noted, there are more efficient ways to get information from staff.  This is especially true when there are other staff and members of the public waiting for the committee to get to their business.

So to ensure the best information is provided to a committee, two changes are being recommended to our practice for non-Committee members:

  • They are being encouraged to make written submissions to committees on matters of interest to them (e.g. a Ward-specific issue).
  • They will be provided an opportunity to make a verbal submission to the Chair during which they can pose questions, provide new information or their perspective, request that the committee members consider taking certain action and/or request additional information is provided to Council.

So non-Committee members would no longer participate in the committee’s work if these recommendations are accepted but the committee members would have the benefit of receiving information from their colleagues to assist their decision making.

One legitimate criticism in the past has been that members of Council have had limited time to ask questions of staff before a meeting.  This could be an argument for allowing non-Committee members the time to ask questions directly of staff at a meeting.  However, we are changing our practice to provide all members of Council with meeting material an additional 7 days in advance.  This change strengthens our Standing Committee Structure and better supports members of Council in fulfilling their duties.

Members of Council have many ways to inform themselves of the work of committees.  They can:

  • Read committee reports
  • Read the committee’s report to Council with its recommendations
  • Ask questions of the committee chair at Council
  • Read the minutes of the committee meeting
  • Speak to their colleagues on the committee
  • Communicate with members of the public
  • Read the submissions of public delegations
  • Speak to the appropriate staff about a committee report
  • Attend the committee (if available)

There may be other ways to support members of Council being informed.  For instance, perhaps committee meetings should be video-taped and made available to members of Council and the public.

There are other key enhancements being proposed by new Terms of Reference for Council and Standing Committees and they include:

  • Aligning our practices with the Principle-Based Governance Framework
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities of all key stakeholders (e.g. Mayor, Council Member, Committee Chair, Deputy Chair, Committee Member, Non-Committee Member, CAO, Executive Director, City Clerk, and Public Delegations)
  • Establishing a new role of Deputy Chair to encourage the training and development of members of Council
  • Delegating stronger and more comprehensive oversight responsibilities for committees to report on to Council
  • Increasing the accountability and transparency of other bodies that make up our governance system (e.g. Ad Hoc Committees, Advisory Committees, Local Boards, Agencies, Municipal Corporations, Committees with Delegated Authority, Quasi-Judicial/Adjudicative Committees)

Change looming in how Guelph committee meetings held?


About Karen Farbridge

An unwavering change maker seeking a just, democratic and sustainable world.

View all posts by Karen Farbridge

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