Josh Matlow, City Hall Diary
City council meetings can often seem more like a schoolyard brawl than a mature exercise in democracy. But what happens when a city councillor becomes a schoolyard bully?
Most public schools in Toronto have strict codes of conduct for their students. City council also has a set of rules that every member is expected to follow during its meetings. It’s called the procedures bylaw. This 134-page document dictates almost every action a councillor can take throughout a council meeting, such as when a member can move a motion, speak or even be disciplined for bullying.
At any point during a meeting, if a member feels like he or she has been the target of heckling, name calling or a comment that comes close to breaking libel and slander laws, any member can stand up and speak on a “point of privilege.” Typically, an apology is requested from the offending councillor to remedy the situation.
Sadly, this happens often as council’s meetings are very long and its politics are bitterly divisive. A meeting can go on for more than 10 hours on one day, and then continue over a two- or three-day session. And although councillors know that the meeting is televised and the public is watching, a combination of passion, fatigue and hunger can lead to even the most thoughtful councillor saying something egregious.
During last week’s special meeting of council on the 2011 budget, there were so many points of privilege made that, for a time, the meeting morphed into theatre of the absurd. The debate heated up, the arguments over policy turned into personal fights, motives were questioned, and there were several accusations of lying.
When this verbal melee reached the point of being nonsensical, I looked up to the people in the public viewing area, curious to see what their reaction might be. Looking back at us was a group of schoolchildren getting a first, and unfortunate, lesson on civics and local democracy.
Sometimes, a councillor will speak on a point of privilege to say something about a random topic they care about. This unofficial, but oft-used practice can cut across partisan and ideological lines and can be light-hearted. For example, Councillor Paul Ainslie, who sits on the mayor’s executive team, recently thanked his environmentalist colleague Glen De Baeremaker for his new career in photojournalism.
He then displayed a photo he’d taken of De Baeremaker posing at council with a low-flush toilet that was published in the Star.
And, once in a while, this procedure can even be used to remind us all of the civility our elected representatives should aspire to. On the day council passed the 2011 budget, right-wing Councillor Doug Ford stood up on a point of privilege at the start of the meeting. He looked at his “pinko” colleague Joe Mihevc and wished him a happy birthday.
Ultimately, I’ve heard many Toronto residents make their own “point of privilege” — they’ve told me that they want their city council to be more thoughtful, mature and set a model of behaviour that earns their confidence.
Josh Matlow is the councillor for Ward 22, St. Paul’s
To read this column at thestar.com, please click here.