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Just follow the ordinance

Back in April, we took the Abbotsford City Council to task for abruptly getting rid of its long-standing committees and replacing them with a single committee-of-the-whole. That transition was made without much prior discussion, and on the eve of an election that brought three new members onto the council.

It’s not that we didn’t see the efficiency advantages of having just one large committee with a consistent meeting schedule. Our concern was how hastily the new system was implemented, with less than a week between when the proposal was made and when it was adopted.

Now, about six months later, a few council members are starting to question the way the committee of the whole system is used. We believe they are asking exactly the right questions.

Of particular concern is how the committee of the whole can act as a full council by simply voting to “convene as a council.” We believe this runs completely counter to the ordinance that was adopted in April to establish the committee of the whole process. A provision in that ordinance clearly states: “No final or official votes are taken at meetings of the committee-of-the-whole, although the membership may take a vote to make a recommendation to be taken up at a regular common council meeting or assign tasks to city staff or other commissions or bodies.” The ordinance goes on to explicitly state that the purpose of the committee of the whole is to “allow the entire membership of the common council, sitting in a deliberative rather than a legislative capacity, to engage in informal discussion and preliminary consideration of matters awaiting legislative action.”

Nowhere in the ordinance does it say the committee can, whenever it wants, turn itself into the full council and take action on an agenda item. In fact, by saying the committee is “deliberative rather than legislative,” it’s telling those who have business before Abbotsford’s municipal government to not expect any “final or official votes” at committee of the whole meetings.

For the most part, the city has stuck to this plain interpretation of the ordinance. Committee of the whole meetings held since April have been almost entirely discussion-only, with no action taken besides recommendations to the council.

This pattern was broken last month, though, when the council used a Sept. 18 committee of the whole meeting to approve a new policy to fine residents $50 for putting out piles of leaves and brush after the annual deadline for curbside pickups. Instead of referring the proposal to the council for possible action at its next meeting on Oct. 7, the committee fast-tracked it by convening as a council and taking a vote that night.

Technically, the ordinance establishing the new $50 fee wasn’t officially adopted until the Oct. 7 council meeting, but elected officials made it clear on Sept. 18 that they were voting to put the policy into place that night. The reason was because they wanted to let residents know about the new policy by sending it out with their monthly water bills. Waiting until the Oct. 7 council meeting wouldn’t have allowed that to happen.

This is not how government should work. Proposed policies like the one involving late leaf pickups should be introduced with plenty of time for residents to hear about them and offer feedback to members of the council. Going from proposal to approval in one night undermines local democracy.

Still, there’s no need for the council to abandon the committee of the whole system or pass another ordinance. It simply needs to follow the letter of the law that was adopted back in April, without making exceptions for expediency.

The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien