North Saanich councillors. They usually get along, but now they’re debating how long they talk at meetings and who talks the most. (File)

City council spends 36 minutes debating length of policy discussions

North Saanich councillors tinkered with how long they should debate an issue to limit meeting times

It’s an ongoing joke in many communities that council meetings can run a bit longer than expected – sometimes lasting hours into the evening.

Ironically, one B.C. municipality has taken the time to debate the matter.

North Saanich Coun. Celia Stock raised a motion recently, seeking to limit the amount of councilor discussion that takes place on any given issue — in an attempt to speed up their meetings.

She said she wanted meetings run in a more effective and efficient manner and pointed to neighbouring councils in Central Saanich and Sidney that put time limits on how long a politician can debate a point.

“All of us have had this … on the radar since last fall,” Stock said. “We do often tend to have meetings that last (up to) four-and-a-half hours.”

In Sidney’s example, she continued, there’s a procedural bylaw in place that keeps debate per councilor to five minutes on each subject.

“And then they are not allowed to keep on speaking,” she said.

Central Saanich’s limit, she continued, is 10 minutes and the limit among Capital Regional District directors is 15 minutes. Stock said having similar limits in North Saanich could prevent meetings from going beyond 10:30 p.m. and “not subjecting staff” to long sessions of council.

It was clear, however, that other councillors have been timing each other and, instead of imposing limits, a majority suggested other means of keeping the meetings more succinct.

Coun. Heather Gartshore said their meetings vary from two-and-a-half hours to those longer ones Stock mentioned. However, Gartshore said the longer ones are rare — despite the three long ones council had in January.

“I feel this notice is born of frustration,” she said. “I feel as if this is trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”

Gartshore wondered how it would be enforced, such as having staff with stopwatches.

She added she feels meeting length is related to agenda size, saying if North Saanich council met more frequently and didn’t break in the summer, the meetings could be quicker.

Gartshore also said if councillors come prepared and ready to go, meetings may also pick up.

“My observation is that doesn’t always happen.”

Coun. Geoff Orr noted with humour that Gartshore herself spoke seven minutes on the issue, but basically agreed with her. Her said he doesn’t feel he has to apologize for asking questions to reach the decisions he needs to reach.

Coun. Jack Thornburgh added he saw Stock’s motion as ‘aspirational’, rather than prescriptive. If councillors exercise self-discipline, he continued, there wouldn’t be a need for time limits.

In the end, Stock’s motion was defeated in a 5-2 vote (Stock and Mayor Alice Finall voted for it).

The entire debate took approximately 36 minutes.

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