North Cowichan mayor Jon Lefebure and senior staff have been tasked to find revisions and compromises as the municipality attempts to set a new policy on the public’s access to council members.
After a lengthy discussion, councillors in North Cowichan decided on March 1 to postpone any decisions or recommendations on the issue until after Lefebure and John Ruttan, North Cowichan’s director of corporate services, have reviewed and made possible revisions to a number of proposed policies to govern public access to council members.
Those proposed policies include council members not holding private meetings or discussions with applicants, property owners and others interested parties regarding development applications before the public hearing on the development proposal.
If such meetings are to be held, it’s proposed that staff members attend and take notes.
Lefebure said he and Ruttan will try to find a balance between citizens’ access to council members and council’s requirement to be open and transparent in regards to information that is given to council members when a development application is in process.
He said any proposed new policy would not include “general conversations” the public has with council members regarding issues that don’t involve development applications that are in process.
“Our process is meant to have information provided regarding development applications that can be discussed in public so the proponents and the public can speak to it,” Lefebure said.
“Our goal is to ensure that everyone is treated fairly. We’re looking at a range of options and we’re hoping to bring some recommendations before council within a month.”
The issue has come to the forefront as the result of a motion made by Coun. Maeve Maguire in December in an effort to ensure that all proposed developments in the municipality are treated equally by council.
But North Cowichan has been receiving a significant amount of negative feedback to the proposed motion by many residents who are taking issue with the possibility they may be denied free access to their elected council members.
Coun. Al Siebring said at the March 1 meeting that public access to council members “goes to the heart of who we are as a council and what we are elected to do”.
“Listening to the community is a core value to me, whether that be listening to someone rant while I’m in line at a grocery store or sitting down having a coffee,” Siebring said.
“I don’t always agree with what I’m hearing, but I value the input. We’re all adults here and I don’t think we need to be babysat by staff on these issues. I understand there are legal concerns, but there are better ways to deal with this.”
Siebring suggested that councillors keep “detailed notes” of private meetings they have regarding development applications in process and inform those that council members are meeting with that they will not make any commitments on the issue until they have heard all sides.
“I suggest that the notes taken at the meetings be emailed to all the other council members to keep them informed of all the information that has come forward before the public hearing,” he said.
But Coun. Joyce Behnsen said if the development proposal process in the municipality ran smoothly, developers and members of the public wouldn’t feel the need to meet individual council members outside of public hearings and meetings.
“One of the reasons some people feel the need for this type of communication is that there are gaps in the process in communication between them and some staff members,” she said.
“We have more than 53 years of council experience at this table so I’m amazed we’re at this point where we don’t know how to meet with members of the public.”