No applause please

I remember the first time I made a delegation to City Council.  The year was 1990.

I remember being very nervous and spending a lot of time writing my speaking notes and getting the timing right to ensure I stayed within 5 minutes.

I remember several members of Council talking with each other, backs turned to me and the public gallery, as I made my delegation.

And I vividly remember one member of Council asking me who I thought I was wasting their time with my delegation.

I knew then that I had a right to make that delegation along with a right to be listened to and treated with respect whether the member of Council agreed with me or not

That night I decided to run for Council.

I remember my first year as Mayor (2000).  We did not enjoy the same level of civility in Council Chambers that, generally speaking, we do today.  Discussions about important community issues would sometimes deteriorate into personal attacks between elected officials, between elected and public officials or elected officials and members of the public.

I remember speaking to the City Clerk of the day, Lois Giles, about my concerns and she led me to a document – Everyday Ethics for Local Officials.  There was a chapter on Promoting Civility at Public Meetings: Concept and Practice.

This quote from a former Mayor resonated with me and informed my practice as a Chair.

“At our council meetings, we ask folks…not to applaud, boo or otherwise make remarks about other people’s testimony.  I try to appeal to their sense of fairness by saying that we know how hard it is to get up to speak at council meetings, and out of respect for each person’s feelings, we should allow them to have their say without comment from the public. I have found in my 11 years in office that if you ask nicely and explain it as a courtesy to others, almost everyone complies.”

That has been my experience as well. 

I find it interesting that I received the most significant challenge to this practice during a Council meeting when we were having an important community discussion about finding a balance between freedom of expression and community civility (public order).

A discussion of civility at a Council meeting revolves around two competing sets of values: “the value of free expression versus the value of respect for fellow participants in the democratic process”.

This ethical dilemma can be resolved – it is possible to choose to be both expressive and civil at the same time, to disagree without being disagreeable.

The events of this week led me to return to this document and to reflect on this quote once more. 

I will continue to ask members of the public attending a Council meeting to refrain from applauding and booing (and yes, in my book that includes, non-verbal signs like red and green cards).  I will continue to ask for their cooperation in choosing civility believing this will encourage broader participation in local government.  And I will continue to ask all participants to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of a proposed solution to a community concern and not to engage in personal attacks, either directly or through association, against those who favour different solutions.

About Karen Farbridge

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

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6 Comments on “No applause please”

  1. Rick Boersma Says:

    I’d like to clap…but…At any rate, great post. Thanks!

  2. Tara.Sprigg@guelph.ca Says:

    This is a great post, Karen.
    Enjoy the weekend!
    Tara

  3. Dave Sills Says:

    Mayor Farbridge,

    I certainly understand your perspective on this. But it is only one aspect of the issue – albeit an important aspect. Other aspects need to be considered.

    It is pretty frustrating when you come out to a Council meeting and sit in the gallery to support a certain position but have no way to show that you support that position. How are councillors to know what the citizens in the gallery are concerned about if the audience can’t express their opinion in any way – not through clapping, booing, holding up cards, or otherwise? Those in the gallery are effectively voiceless. Why bother showing up?

    I’m sure Council is happy to see a packed gallery – it’s a sign of a healthy democracy. And I would think that Council would want to know why those in the gallery have taken the time to come out.

    Maybe there’s a creative compromise possible?

    Here’s an alternative take on the issue from London:

    http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2012/04/16/19639171.html

    Thanks for sharing your views on this – both here and at Council on Monday.

    Dave Sills

  4. kfarbridge Says:

    There are many opportunities to have a voice in local decision making and it continues to grow as we move to implement open government and further enhance community engagement. In this case, there was the consultation process which included a Telephone Town Hall and World Café as opportunities to have a voice. All correspondence received from members of the public is part of the consultation process. Some members of the public voiced their opinion directly to members of Council. Some wrote letters to the editor. Others voiced their concerns or support on social media. All of these represent opportunities for freedom of expression and having voice on a local decision.

    Speaking to Council is also an important opportunity – and often the most intimidating. In this moment, I believe it is important to balance our our right to freedom of expression with providing a supportive environment that encourages as many voices to be heard as possible in that moment.

  5. Dave Sills Says:

    Thanks for responding. What you are encouraging then is for citizens to provide comments during ‘the process’ and stay home for votes – since just sitting in the gallery really affords zero opportunity to show support for anything. While I understand your concern, I don’t agree with this approach and would rather see respectful democratic participation from the gallery during Council meetings, especially for important votes. I think a full gallery is a good indication of an engaged citizenry and a healthy local democracy – and thus should be encouraged. London City Council apparently agrees (see link above).

  6. kfarbridge Says:

    I am absolutely not encouraging what you have suggested.

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